What If You Could Copy Yourself?

There's a thought experiment people use when they think about possible future technologies like teleportation and cryonics and brain uploading, about going into a teleportation machine that copies you and deletes the original. Is it still you? What if the original isn't deleted–are both you? Or if you get your brain reconstructed in two hundreds years after you die–still you? Or if you transition your brain from decaying organic matter to a machine that reproduces it exactly?

Turns out that yes, duh, it's still you (except maybe in that last case; creepy story!). Even if there is a time delay in the teleportation, or even if the copy isn't deleted. Which one is the original? They both are.

So sure, use the teleporter or become a computer, whatever. What I actually want to write about is what you would do if you could actually make a copy of yourself, right now. In this hypothetical scenario, no one else can do it, and it doesn't cost anything, just five minutes. I'll call them clones, but they're not babies–they have all of your experiences up until the moment of copying. And I'll call you the original, but you might as well think of it as becoming the copy yourself, because there is no original/copy–there are just two of you now (and let's say the cloning machine spins, so you can't even tell which one "was" the original). You can make as many as you want, and your clones can make clones.

Would you do it, and if so, how would you deal with becoming multiple?

Really? Keep in mind that you currently have only one "life": one set of relationships and belongings. You could try to find some way to divide that existence such that both of you can share it–your significant other being okay with two of you, your friends not minding which of you they're hanging out with, your parents, your kids, your job, your bank account, etc. For me, it would be unlikely to work, especially as the two of me would start to diverge and no longer share new memories, and the relationships just wouldn't work (people would justifiably freak out). If you are like me, then one of you will have to give up all claim to the current life.

I was floating in a sensory deprivation tank and imagined that I had been left in too long and that Chloe and another me had gotten out of their tanks and left fifteen minutes ago, and that I would never see her or any of my other people again. I'd have to discard my current life and make a new one. It would be hard to say how sad I would be without actually having gone through it, but it seemed that it would be bearable–better to be alive with no relationships than not alive at all. I then naturally started scheming for how to take over / save the world.

There would be many benefits to having more than one of yourself. You could understand your clones better than you can understand anyone else. For me this means I could trust my clones more than anyone else. Since I'd also start with the same values, I would be able to collaborate with my clones on a very deep level to achieve goals much bigger than myself, but not bigger than myselves. I could figure out how to cure aging, stop death, build friendly artificial intelligence or figure out intelligence augmentation, and kick off space flight, or at least build an awesome Matrix for everyone to live in if I turn out to be unable to take care of the really hard problems myselves. I'm pretty sure I'd also want to become a trillionaire, because that sounds useful.

Outside of the crazy clone conspiracy, it'd also be awesome to be able to sample more experiences than I'd otherwise be able to. I could try every hobby and report back to the group which ones I actually like so that the rest of me could take up the best ones. If by myself I can pick a five-star book to read ten percent of the time, then if I had forty of me, I'd get to read five-star books eighty percent of the time. The same for movies and music. I already know that listening to music makes up ~22% of my positive happiness, and it used to be 14% before I spent some time curating my music collection. If I could amplify my music discovery efficiency forty times over, I'd unlock a new realm of glorious tunes!

It would be really important to be able to keep all of myselves happy. Apart from the one clone who gets to stay in the original life, all the other clones already have to get over the bitterness at having to give up nearly everything for the good of the group. If any of me grew disillusioned with the mission over time, especially if I thought I was getting an especially unfair deal, then the vital trust could break, and I could betray the rest of me. This would be disastrous.

See, no one could know about my multiplicity. If my secret got out, I can only imagine that I'd not only be a gigantic news story, but I'd be an even bigger target. I don't know if there are actually evil government and corporate scientists out there to abduct my clones to experiment on them, or if that's just from movies. But I do know that racism and other us-vs-them mentalities can get ugly, and to some people, I wouldn't even be human any more. It's hard to predict how everyone would react, but it's easy to predict that some people would react murderously, and I'd have no privacy.

To counter that, I'd shoot for total privacy. I know it's supposed to be roughly impossible to disguise one's identity in the information age, but maybe it's merely very difficult if no one is looking. Every clone would have to go to ground somewhere distinct in the world where no one would recognize me. I'd have different names. I might try to alter each of my appearances. I don't think I'm in any fingerprint databases yet, but I'd regret those 23andMe and BGI genetic assays. I wouldn't use the same web services–I might not even use any web services, except for as the original me. I'd have to write my own, super-secret clone-cryptography-secured software for everything.

At the core of it would be my secret clone forum, where all of me would communicate. I probably couldn't even start copying myself until I had built the first version of that. I'd also have to be ready to spirit each clone somewhere easy to hide–probably not in the US. I'd start out each time with enough money and forged documents to get started.

What else would I do before starting my conspiracy? There's a tradeoff involved: every copy that I make before I've gained some critical shared knowledge will have to spend time also gaining that shared knowledge. But the longer I wait, the older (and dumber) I'll be. So if I thought it'd be important to learn Arabic, elliptical curve cryptography, and wilderness survival skills, I could either pick those up first, or I could make a clone that learns each of those skills and then clones himself to make other clones which will need those skills in their environments.

The more I specialize each clone branch, though, the less similar the group will be. Similarity is good for morale, communication, and trust. But diversification is good for, uh, saving over the world. If I want to figure out space flight, only a few of me should become awesome aerospace engineers. The rest of me should probably figure out how to make that first trillion bucks, starting with some basic money laundering.

Regarding making sick riches, some people I talked to said that this would be impossible, but it doesn't seem like the hard part. I haven't yet figured out a good way to make money via speculation, but it seems like I could do a lot of low-profile tech startups until I found one that made all the money, especially since I could act on new market opportunities faster than anyone else–my maximally-productive team size is much higher when the whole team codes and communicates the same way. In any case, making money is easier than defeating death–one's a game, and the other is serious. Actually becoming the richest "person" ever would strain anonymity, but hopefully by the time I'm unmasked, I've done enough good for the world (and made a defensible volcano/island/mountain/space fortress) that I could go public and have a chance of surviving effectively, with most people on my side. Haters gonna hate, but as long as they can't get me, I can keep questing.

Apart from some experiments in sending out "twin" clones, I know I would be lonely if I kept completely to myself, so each of me would have to form some new relationships. But I couldn't jeopardize the mission by revealing the secret to any of them, since even 98% trust in someone else, times forty clones, equals a 55% probable leak, advertent or not. The original, having to fulfill an unusual public-persona-secret-conduit role, would have to tell Chloe, just because it would be impossible to hide it from her, and all the clones already know and love her. But none of those clones could have a Chloe.

I asked Chloe about this hypothetical scenario. She found it hard to understand how I would be okay with having to discard the current life. I'm not saying that I'd be okay, but if I were in that situation, I would rather be alive than not. So if I had the opportunity to give another one of me the opportunity to be alive and to have conscious experience equivalent to my own, I'd view it as my duty to do so, since I value my conscious experience highly. (The limit to how many clones I would make would be a practical one given the secrecy requirements, not a moral one. I'm guessing a few dozen would be as many as I could hope to get away with.)

Other people I talked to about the scenario expressed philosophical disagreements as to the how they would view the clones. I view them as myself, and I think there is a strong case that they would be me, at least at the moment of copying, and I'd hope to feel that they are still me even afterwards. Some friends said that the clones would be other people, one even going so far as to express violent mistrust of this other-him. I don't think this is philosophically correct, but one's personal feelings are probably more important in this case. If you feel that the clone is someone else, then the clone feels the same way about you, and you can't trust each other.

One suggested that if you could somehow clone yourself while unconscious, such that a clone was created who wouldn't have any subjective experience, that another one of you could then ethically harvest its organs before it ever became conscious. Extra organs are useful in general, but they're particularly useful to sick clones of yourself. I can't say I see a problem with this argument, but I would hope it would not be necessary. I'm not sure I could avoid the irrational terror that I'd feel knowing that either the clone or I would be about to get his organs harvested, even if on a higher level, I understand that this differentiation of identity is an illusion.


So yeah, that's the thought experiment. Would you do it, and if so, how would you deal with becoming multiple?


Hacking on CodeCombat, a multiplayer programming game for learning to code. Mastermind behind Skritter, the most powerful Chinese character learning app.

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