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Start Metaphysics of our Time: Digital Beings
13 March 2017

Metaphysics of our Time: Digital Beings

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To be or not to be is not the question

The New Scientist journal dedicated a special issue to the “biggest questions“; which are normally, “left to philosophers” but, as stated by the publication, “scientists are increasingly claiming them as their own”.

One of those questions, its theoretical grandeur is understood, is that of How do I know I exist? however, in the twenty-first century could immediately result in a different one: Can I be sure that I don’t exist in a simulation created by a more advanced intelligence?

Image: jesse orrico / unsplash

You can’t answer no in all certainty. Reproducing an animal’s neuronal activity digitally, by connecting it to a mechanical device so it can interact, and achieving this is no longer science fiction. If we have been able to do it, it would also be possible to apply a similar transformation to the brain of a human being or a machine. It is the indefiniteness that we will have to get used to in the coming years.

An essential worm for science

Source: Busbice (2014). Extending the C. Elegans Connectome to Robotics.

The Caenorhabditis elegans worm is, by nature, a great help for science. It is microscopic (1mm in length), but its interest for research lies, among other things, in its genome: sequencing both its genome as well as its connectome has been achieved. This took place in 1998 when it became the first multicellular organism to be completely genetically sequenced.

Moreover, we not only know the 302 neurons that make up its brain, its 6418 synapses and 95 innervated muscles, but, in 2014, a researcher, Tim Busbice, announced that he had managed to digitally reproduce these neurons.

Three hundred and two programs were required, one for each neuron, all connected together, in a similar manner to so-called synaptic communication. He then connected the system to a robot, originally a Lego Mindstorms EV3 Robot, and left it to interact freely with the environment.

“Wrapping the entire connectome into a framework whereby sensory input can be derived from robotic sensors and directed to connectome sensory neurons, which in turn activates interneurons, which activate motor neurons, and muscle output can be accumulated to activate robotic motors, the simulated connectome and connectome framework allows for a biological simulation and study of the entire connectome from sensory input to muscular output” (Busbice, 2014. Extending the C. Elegans Connectome to Robotics).

Source: Busbice (2014). Extending the C. Elegans Connectome to Robotics.

Upon turning on the robot, Busbice managed to get it to move after capturing a sound, just as what happens with a biological worm, seeking to find traces of food. By moving, the robot encounters an obstacle, seeks to get around it, but not through any prior programming but as a result of its own neuro-robotic interaction, learning, time and time again: a neurodigital system.

The philosophical background of the “robot-worm”

With regard to the question of knowing that we exist, the fact that the mechanical robot understands, knows, or is aware that it interfaces through a digital brain is irrelevant. That could be our future situation as human beings: it is actually possible that living things could be simulated by a higher intelligence.

The worst scenario, by definition, except a revolution in the future, might be that we will never find it out, and some might take advantage and argue that it is precisely our inability to discover why we exist that would prove that we are being simulated, perhaps because of an algorithm that is stopping us.

In any case, we will have to wait a while for the neural network of C. elegans to be able to reach the “I think, therefore I am” of Descartes, or the I am of Fichte, or the self-consciousness of Hegel or, to their own surprise, “Oh! What do I do, a C. elegans, with mechanical wheels? ”

There is also the question of what type of entity to consider this to be, since it is a combination of a mechanical being with a digital reproduction of a biological brain, and in that triple condition it interacts with its environment. Can we talk about a digital animal?

Busbice has continued his research and today is leading his own business, The Connectome Engine, the purpose of which, he says, is to create inorganic beings. The use of the word “creation” to refer to inorganic beings cannot go unnoticed, which is not so much a problem of metaphysics or even anthropology, philosophy, obviously, but the anthropologist is not very useful in this context either.

For now, the picture to refer to these new beings seems a dead end and at the same time, an alley with many get out options. It would be comparable to the best tradition of the unknown, in which Andrónico de Rodas, the Greek philosopher from the first century, systematizing the Corpus Aristotelicumfirst used the term metaphysics to refer to “ta meta ta physika”, what is beyond physics or, at least, our physics or the next one, that of those, the digital beings.

Walter Farah Calderón


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