The Transposed Mind: How Self-Aware Are We?

In the movie “Self/less,” Ben Kingsley plays a wealthy industrialist who has only a few months left to live. So he hires an enigmatic medical organization to transfer his consciousness into the body of a younger man, one they tell him has been grown in a lab, an empty vessel of youth, strength, and vigor waiting for him to enjoy.

In terms of plot lines, the idea of transferring the mind into a new body — or even another substrate, like an electronic machine — isn’t new. We saw it in the most successful film of all time — James Cameron’s “Avatar,” as well as in the classic anime “Ghost in the Shell,” and even in last year’s “Transcendence.”

But with our expanded knowledge of neuroscience and computing power, whose prospects today would have seemed like science fiction just a decade ago, might such a transposition be at all possible?

Some of the breakthroughs of the late 20th century in both data processing and cognition were achieved following the realization that brains and computers are actually quite similar. The on/off states of a computer bit are uncannily like the firing/dormant states of neurons.

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