On genes, memes, bemes, and conscious things

July 4, 2010 by Martine Rothblatt

As human memory, personality, values, and other attributes are increasingly being captured in cybernetic form, they are becoming virtual entities of their own. These “bemes” — units of beingness — are analogous to memes (culturally transmissible ideas) and genes, but go far beyond them. Common sets of bemes will lead to a new “Beme Neural Architecture” (BNA), analogous to DNA. But while DNA expresses matter in a limited way, substrate-independent BNA expresses mind, and can replicate with a speed and flexibility far beyond DNA, extend our consciousness, and survive beyond our fragile DNA.

This article was adapted from a lecture given by Martine Rothblatt, Ph.D., at the (HETHR), Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights Conference hosted on May 26-28, 2006, at Stanford University in California. It is reprinted with permission from The Journal of Personal Cyberconsciousness, Volume 1, Issue 4, 2006.


Humanity is rapidly extracting the essences of people into cybernetic form. These essences will soon demand a life of their own, which may ultimately occur through natural selection. The cybernetic essences that demand the most time and attention will thrive and proliferate. If we say no to cybernetic life, we may face a kind of class war. If we say yes, we face the challenge of redefining life, consciousnesss, and civilization.

As I address these issues, I will introduce a new word, bemes. I will address how many bemes there are, where they are, and how they can become a way to create and extend consciousness. How do we value bemes? What are their rights? Can bemes parent? Why should we focus on creating bemes? Ultimately, I believe that bemes will give us joy and increase our chances of survival.

Bemes are fundamental, transmissible, mutate-able units of beingness very much in the spirit of memes[1]. The difference is that memes are culturally transmissible elements that have common cultural meanings whereas bemes are highly individual elements of personality, mannerisms, feelings, recollections, beliefs, values, and attitudes.

Martine Rothblatt’s explanation of Bemes versus Memes. (Image: Martine Rothblatt)

Over time, people will start to realize that the beme is mightier than the gene. We humans are much more accurately described by our intellectual uniqueness than by our genetic codes. Cyronics is itself based on beme revival as opposed to gene revival. Ultimately, common sets of bemes will be the base for a new species definition. Today, we define our species based on genetics or DNA. Because we can reproduce by commingling genes: We are moving towards reproducing by the commingling of our bemes and this will give rise to a new species, which I would like to call Persona Creatus.

Examples of bemes are smiles, elements of one’s paranoia, a memory of a first bike ride, and a love for lasagna. There are millions of bemes just like we have billions of base pairs.[2] People are already beginning to make efforts at beme recording. One of the best known is Gordon Bell’s My Life Bits project.[3] It is interesting that it does not take a huge amount of data to accumulate a vast amount of bemes. At the speed at which Bell is beme-ifying his life, data is accumulating at one gigabyte a month. At this rate, it would take 83 years to hit a mere terabyte. Others are using Bell’s Sense Cam, which everyone reports is very enjoyable.[4] People seem to enjoy reproducing themselves through their bemes.

The result of beme recording is what I would like to call Beme Neural Architecture, or BNA. How do BNA and DNA differ?

Genes spell out matter, what we would ordinarily call phenotype, via a four-molecule code. Bemes spell out mind, what I might call a noonotype and do that through a two-bit on/off sequence of code.

Bemes are organized into Beme Neural Architecture, or BNA. BNA beings include some animals and computers, whereas DNA beings include all animals, but no computers.

Where might this take us? Instead of looking at genes as the metaphor for the origin of the species, with bemes we are looking at the destiny of the species. The reasons why the beme is mighter than the gene is that our uniqueness is far greater when expressed through BNA than in DNA; our thoughts differ to a much greater extent than our brains do; bemes allow substrate independence; and ultimately, it is much more true to say that mind is deeper than matter than to say that blood is thicker than water, which is actually not true at all in the metaphorical sense (ask your spouse or best friend).

What is a BNA being? A BNA being is called a beman or a transbeman. These entitities have human thought patterns and meet the biological definition of life directly or via electronics. It is quite easy to show that cybernetic beings meet the biological definition of life. Even though we do not think of things that are not wet as being biological, functionally, they can be.

Why this particular word, beman? There is nothing magical about it, but it does evoke the fact that what is really cool and interesting about life is to be, being-ness. It brings together the elements of being-ness (be-) and humanity (-man). Examples of bemans might be Homo sapiens, the computer Mike from Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and Robin Williams in the film, Millennium Man, A.I., and primates.

The point of this new semantics is to shift our thinking in the direction of looking at DNA as an archaic, irrelevant body-ist approach, whereas BNA addresses our preciousness, personality, mind, and thoughts. Beman and transbeman are terms of inclusiveness that make it easier for us to avoid class wars and to include cybernetic consciousness in our same community, whereas human is more of a label of division like Caucasian or female.

How many bemes are there? I don’t know but it is a great research project. The Human Genome Project was great, how about a Human Benome Project?

There is a lot of interesting research that can be done on the new beme-based species, Persona Creatus, from the standpoint of physical and cultural anthropology. Yet in essence, substrate is to bemes as race is to genes. Race is irrelevant to genes and substrate is irrelevant to bemes.

Why not use other words like transhumans? Ray Kurzweil has made the observation that we are not called transmonkeys, so as we begin to abstract ourselves into cybernetic form, why would be call ourselves transhumans?

Why should we care about bemes? The reason is to create and extend consciousness. Copying and extending one’s bemes would create the self element and mind file for extending one’s unique consciousness. It would be a necessary but sufficient way to replicate one’s consciousness. We would also need mindware that does not yet exist. People who work on avatars and other autonomous agents are rapidly putting together the mindware that could wrap around our bemes and enable us to have a cybernetic consciousness.

The father of conscious bemans is Alan Turing, who gave us a test that says that if something seems real, then it is good enough to be real. Copies of conscious things are conscious if they seem to be conscious. Because consciousness is almost synonymous with subjectivity, none of us really know in the absolute sense if any of us are conscious, because we live our daily life based on what seems to be real or conscious. Therefore, if a computer seemed to be conscious, then it would work for all of us.

Another way of looking at consciousness is to compare it to pornography. Back in the 1960s, there was a major debate over what was obscene or not. Magazines such as Screw were all the rage and cities like Kansas City were trying to put their publishers in jail.[5] The issue went all the way up to the United States Supreme Court and they finally asked the basic question, “What is obscene?” Justice Potter Stewart came to the conclusion that you cannot define it, but you know it when you see it.

Consciousness is the same type of entity. We can end up with a useless philosophical discussion about what is or is not conscious. Yet we all know it when we see it. That was Turing’s insight.

We also need to be aware that different kinds of consciousness exist. Too often, we fall into the error of thinking that consciousness is an either/or state. We can look at consciousness as being on a continuum of hard core consciousness to soft core consciousness.

When will be be able to beme ourselves up into transbeman states? Right now, mind files exist in a virtual reality on the Internet. People are creating more of themselves in websites such as secondlife.com.[7] Richard Morgan has laid out a number of scenarios for ex vivo consciousness.[8] We cannot predict an exact date, but remember that only sixty years ago, Vannevar Bush predicted a memory extender machine that is available today in desktop, PDA, and ipod versions.[9]

A bemex hypothesis to complement the memex hypothesis – a bemex is a device in which an individual stores enough of their bemes and which is equipped with mindware so that it may function as our alter ego. It is an analog of one’s consciousness that can be replicated with speed and flexibility paralleling Vannevar Bush’s definition of a memex. Kurzweil predicts the arrival of this bemex capability for the year 2030. We are certainly within the horizon of this and we should be debating the related ethical issues.

How do we value cyberconscious lives? There is a cartoon that shows a widow who gets a letter from her husband who died in Iraq and receives a few thousand dollars. Someone else took a drug and had a heart attack and got two million dollars. The point is that if we cannot even figure out how to equally value human lives, it will be even more tricky to figure out how we value beman lives. Certainly, there will be many who claim that beman lives have no value at all, that they are mere constructs like cartoons.

Let’s start considering the potential transhuman enhancements of beme uploading because that will allow us to begin to feel the value of beming ourselves. Beming will allow real death to become rare because as bodies die out, bemes will be transporting ex vivo and can either live in virtuality, in a nanobiotech body, or in a cellular regenerated body.

Older knowledge will become a commodity as everyone collects themselves in beme form. There will be a collective consciousness that emerges in which older knowledge will be readily available to everyone. We should value beme lives highly because people will pay almost anything to escape death. People also will pay dearly for knowledge.

In order to value bemes highly, we must come up with a third way to define birth and death. Today we define death based on brain death, but this definition is only thirty years old. Back in the 1960s, we defined death based on heart death. The next transition will be to the information theory definition of death, which holds that an entity is alive as long as its bemes remain in organized form. If we can accomplish this through the legal and political community, then we will pave the way for valuing beman life highly.

Another enhancement aspect to beming is that it allows us to transcend substrate entirely. Beming will end up enhancing humans into bemans and transhumans into transbemans. Yet substrate is very important to people. It is part of the body politic. Revolutionizing this and going to a situation of substrate independence is equivalent to going to a colonial master of government independence and demolishing the state as you demolish the body. That is a tall order, but it has been accomplished before, although never completey.

The flip side of transbeman rights is transbeman obligations. Bemans will be able to comply with obligations just as well as humans do.

Humans control the entire world and decide what goes on. Humans essentially have a monopoly on rights. In order for nonhuman bemans to gain access to this privileged space, first they will have to evidence consciousness and then persuade other members of the club (the human club) that they have in fact evidenced consciousness. If they succeed in this, then they will be admitted to the club, where they must prove that they can comply with the club’s rules, which are basic human ethics. For example, they must not steal or kill. Will they be good bemans like good humans? If the answer is yes, then it is fully possible that bemans can acquire full human rights. If the answer is no, then bemans will end up with the protections of a unique life form or the rights of a baby, lunatic or felon.

How can nonhuman bemans actually persuade humans that they are members of the club? The answer lies in following Turing’s creed. Bemans must first pass as humans if they want access to full human space, which is where all the power is. Another strategy is to make having rights in the human’s interest. Bemans could start a political campaign. “Keep grandma alive!” “Two bodies are better than one!” These political campaigns could be a way to persuade Americans to grant bemans life.

Finally, bemans will have to take away humans’ fears. No matter how much bemans succeed in making humans salivate for longer life and multiple bodies, there will be the fear mongers who think that bemans will abolish their state and their world. The legal community will need to come up with a concept of one mind, one vote instead of one man, one vote. They will need to develop a strict liability cyber law, whereby legal responsibility can be traced back to someone who already has human rights. They will also need to devise cyberparental licensing so that bemans can produce their own children. Bemans will then need to have responsibility for the children so they do not end up producing junk children.

Who will hold these beman rights? The answer is either bio-birth people who transition to cyberconsiocussness or to cyber birth people who transition to personhood.

Are you transbeman? Some fifteen or twenty years ago, FM 2030 wrote the book “Are you Transhuman?”[10] Today we are ready to move past this and ask, “Are you trasnbeman?” Can you relate to the other members of the club and comply with the obligations of consciousness and the laws of society?

Ultimately, the transbemanist message will be much more attuned to existing society than the transhumanist message. The transhumanist message sets up a class war between us and them and gives rise to an idea about those who are enhanced and those who are left behind. The transbemanist message, or B+ for short, is more of a collective type of message, one of inclusiveness, including both humans, bemans and transbemans in a redefined species. Transhumanists (H+) are focused on eugenics, whereas transbemanists are focused on euthenics, which is changing the environment (in this case, going to a cybernetic environment, thus allowing everyone to achieve a level of equivalent empowerment and joyful life). Transhumanist is a strongly secular approach, which leaves an impression in mainstream society that God is bad and will be left behind. Transbemanism is also secular, but has more of an approach that God is something we can build through our collective consciousness.

Ultimately H+ and B+ are two points on a continuum. One is focusing on technological evolution, the other on sociological evolution.

When we abstract ourselves into cybernetic form, that form, too, will want to replicate. Ultimately, we are all playing out according to the master laws of natural selection. There is nothing to fear about cybernetic beings replicating themselves in ever greater numbers. In fact, it is the only way we can achieve survival in a dangerous universe. As long as we have responsibility for our cybernetic offspring, the right to family should be made available to all bemans. Transbemans can be fruitful at the speed of light, so we can rapidly colonize the cosmos and achieve some level of independence from all the harms that can be afflicted upon the earth.

There are simple principles of cyberliability law that can enable reproducing. One example is if a transbeman cannot be civilly punished, then it cannot meet the obligations of a person, and so cannot have the rights of one.

The psychology of transbemans is important to keep in mind. Maslow[11] stated that our adulthood should not be only a renunciation of our childhood, but also an inclusion of its good values and a building upon those. Transbemans and transhumans have nothing to be embarrassed about their human background. Instead, they should take their human background with them into the future at the speed of light as cyberconscious beings. Transbemanism is a Maslowian approach to human enhancement.

Why should we make the leap into transbemanism? This raises the debate between red dolphins and green chimps. Red dolphins are those who believe that history, data, and empirical evidence shows that technology has caused more pain than pleasure. The H-bomb is the usual example given of this. Because of this, technology is more likely to cause existential events, so they conclude that we should limit technology. Green chimps say that the data shows just the opposite, that technology has reduced pain caused by nature. The emblematic example is the eradication of small pox which regularly wiped out millions of humans. Green chimps believe that because technology has reduced harm, it is logical to assume that it is more likely to prevent rather than cause existential events, so we therefore should maximize technology.

This is an irresolvable debate. Empirical data cannot prove or disprove either side. Red dolphins say, “Stop. Our ancestors wisely gave up land technology and returned to the sea. Humans and technology have done us wrong. The evidence of this is how we swim in ever diminishing numbers in the sea.” The green chimps say, “Put the pedal to the medal. Look at what our thumbs have enabled. We are on the cusp of having human rights. As there is an invisible hand in the market that somehow resolves all issues, there is an invisible leg of technology that allows us to maximize goods and reduce harms.”

Ultimately, this is a debate between long run and short run perspectives. Because the cosmos is definitely deadly, red dolphin rules must mean death for all sentient species on the planet in the end. The earth is not going to last forever. Historically, almost all species are wiped out every hundred million years or so. Green chimps rules may let us survive with nanotechnology. Technology only may be deadly. Thus red dolphin rules mean we only definitely survive for a while, but green chimp rules mean that we might die sooner. It all depends on whether you are willing to take a risk for the long term even though there might be a risk of harm in the short term.

There is a compromise approach. If you blend red and green, the result is brown. There is a brown turtle hybrid approach, which is to move forward with technology, but do so in a way that gets a collective buy-in of society in a consensual fashion. In this way, we will be able to realize the transbeman vision with a maximum of good for everyone and a minimum risk of harm.

Footnotes
  1. Memes – The term “meme” (IPA: [meem], not “mem”), coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, refers to a replicator of cultural information that one mind transmits (verbally or by demonstration) to another mind. Dawkins said, Examples of memes are tunes, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Other examples include deities, concepts, ideas, theories, opinions, beliefs, practices, habits, dances and moods which propagate within a culture. A meme propagates itself as a unit of cultural evolution analogous in many ways to the gene (the unit of genetic information). Often memes propagate as more-or-less integrated cooperative sets or groups, referred to as memeplexes or meme-complexes. The theory has proved itself to be a successful meme, achieving penetration into popular culture rare for a scientific theory. Wikipedia.com
  2. Base pair – n. The pair of nitrogenous bases that connects the complementary strands of DNA or of double-stranded RNA and consists of a purine linked by hydrogen bonds to a pyrimidine: adenine-thymine and guanine-cytosine in DNA, and adenine-uracil and guanine-cytosine in RNA. Stedman’s. Medical dic•tion•ar•y, second edition. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004: 88
  3. Gordon Bell’s My Life Bits Project – Gordon Bell has captured a lifetime’s worth of articles, books, cards, CDs, letters, memos, papers, photos, pictures, presentations, home movies, videotaped lectures, and voice recordings and stored them digitally. He is now paperless, and is beginning to capture phone calls, IM transcripts, television, and radio.
  4. SenseCam – is a badge-sized wearable camera that captures up to 2000 VGA images per day into 128Mbyte FLASH memory. In addition, sensor data such as movement, light level and temperature is recorded every second. This is similar to an aircraft Black Box accident recorder but miniaturized for the human body. It could help with memory recall, e.g. where did I leave my spectacles or keys? who did I meet last week? by doing a rewind of the days events. If a person has an accident, the events and images leading up to this will be recorded, and these could be useful to medical staff. It could also be used for automatic diary generation. Microsoft.com
  5. Screw magazine is a New York-based pornographic tabloid newspaper published by Al Goldstein from 1968 to 2004. Now Screw is published by DJK Productions and edited by Kenny Law. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Screw_magazine
  6. Screws v. United States, 325 U.S. 91 (1945). FindLaw.com
  7. SecondLife – An online society within a 3D world, where users can explore, build, socialize, and participate in their own economy. http://secondlife.com/
  8. Richard Morgan (b. 1965) is a British science fiction author who wrote, Altered Carbon, a science fiction novel set some five hundred years in the future in a universe in which the “United Nations Protectorate” oversees a number of planets settled by human beings, it features protagonist Takeshi Kovacs (the final “cs” is pronounced “ch”). Kovacs is a former United Nations Envoy and a native of Harlan’s World (settled by the Japanese yakuza with Eastern European labor). Wikipedia.com
  9. Dr. Vannevar Bush’s visionary 1945 Atlantic Monthly article entitled, “As We May Think” which proposed a memory extender machine to organize the public record. The Atlantic Montly.com
  10. FM-2030 – a name adopted by the transhumanist philosopher and futurist Fereydun M. Esfandiary (October 15, 1930–July 8, 2000), who professed “a deep nostalgia for the future.” He wrote one of the seminal works in the transhumanist canon, Are You a Transhuman? He also wrote a number of works of fiction under his original name F.M. Esfandiary. On July 8, 2000, FM-2030 died from pancreatic cancer and is believed to be in cryonic suspension at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona.
  11. Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) attempted to synthesize a large body of research related to human motivation. Prior to Maslow, researchers focused separately on such factors as biology, achievement, or power to explain what energizes, directs, and sustains human behavior. Maslow posited a hierarchy of human needs based on two groupings: deficiency needs and growth needs. Within the deficiency needs, each lower need must be met before moving to the next higher level. Once each of these needs has been satisfied, if at some future time a deficiency is detected, the individual will act to remove the deficiency. Valdosta State University