How much of yourself do you leave on the internet? An incredible amount of information is collected as you float around the web - sending email, leaving comments, upvoting and downvoting, posting pictures, creating and watching videos, and generally sharing yourself around. You are leaving a trail of digital crumbs, each a tiny clue about who you are. These crumbs capture simple things like what you look or sound like, but also more ephemeral things like how you think. By the very nature interaction with the internet, you cannot help but leave some of yourself behind.
Even more significant than the data you consciously leave behind, is the vast amount of data that companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon are also collecting about you. These companies remember every search query, every purchase, every click and even your cursor movements. Every digital action is fair game for big data. Companies feed all of this information into growing character profiles that they then use to predict what and how to sell to you. They are building a model with which they can predict your decisions…. essentially, they are trying to emulate you.
But what would it take to truly recreate you? At this point nobody knows, but we can speculate on the ingredients such a being would require.
The first thing needed is a set of general memories from which to reconstruct your past. While we are more comfortable thinking of our memories as an infallible record of the past, the reality seems to be quite different. In fact, our memory seems to be better thought of as a retrospective and continually adapting narrative of who you are. Many people on the internet have already populated their personal timelines with the type of information that might be necessary to generate such a narrative. While an emulation might not generate a past exactly as it transpired in reality, maybe such a narrative wouldn’t really be any less plausible than the one that you think you lived.
The second ingredient would be a more general construction of how you think. There is a fascinating range of ways which people can view the world. In order to be a convincing emulation, it would have to have to have knowledge of your political leanings, personal beliefs, modes of reasoning, etc… Luckily, all of the discussions, in which you internet denizens are apt to participate generate a great deal of information about how you see the world.
A stew of geo-tagged date, vast archives of historical documents, and the day to day minutia captured by tweets, emails, messages and status updates might be just the digital stock needed to recreate your thought patterns. Combine this with the staggering volume of similar information collected from billions of users around the world and I think a computer could one day be able to accurately assess that special mix of personality traits which makes you.
But even a perfect model of how you think would not be enough to breathe life into your emulation. The final and most vital ingredient needed will be the hardware necessary to run your emulation. This hardware would need to be a powerful general artificial intelligence. Only a computer which can consistently pass a Turing test as a general intelligence could be adapted to convincingly emulate the specific character traits of a specific person. But, once we can convincingly replicate one human mind, it will quickly become possible to replicate any human mind.
So, if in 20, 30 or 50 years time we finally create a computer which can faithfully replicate human thinking patters, would we be able to recreate you? And I am not just saying you, of 20 years down the road, with the impossible to imagine amounts of information you will add to your profile in the intervening years, I am saying you – right now – the you who is at this very moment reading this blog post. Could we resurrect you?
I think that the hard part will be creating a mind, not recreating your mind. If we know how to generally recreate a human mind, it will be but a matter of shuffling a few inputs and outputs to make the mind like yours, or mine, or anyone. Even a thin thread of personal information which exists today might very well be enough to convincingly recreate you.
The question we are really asking is this – how special are we? We have run into this question many times before, and we have never liked the answer. We are not the centre of the Universe and we are not the purpose of creation – maybe we are are not so special as individuals either? People are utterly predictable, and even at our most unique we are still only a hairs width apart compared to the infinity of possibility. So if we were to become so adept at recreating individuals, would we really be so interested in re-instantiating boring old human minds?
So, we have come to the irony: If realizing digital resurrection leads us to abandon the mysticism of individuality, what reason will we have to bring anyone back?