The Irony of Digital Immortality

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 patternsCombine 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?


19 thoughts on “The Irony of Digital Immortality

  1. >>The first thing needed is a set of general memories from which to reconstruct your past.

    Excellent essay. BTW, you’ve just described how to create a Dirrogate (a Digital Surrogate).
    It’s a major theme running through the hard science fiction novel “Memories With Maya”. Leaving digital bread crumbs does help us re-construct a “mind” (to paraphrase Kurzweil’s book)
    Excellent essay. BTW, you’ve just described how to create a Dirrogate (a Digital Surrogate).
    It’s a major theme running through the hard science fiction novel “Memories With Maya”. Leaving digital bread crumbs does help us re-construct a “mind” (to paraphrase Kurzweil’s book)

    • Thanks. I totally acknowledge that this idea has been repeated over and over throughout sci-fi. I wonder if any authors have really tackled our cult of the mystical self though? If we let go of the value of an individual existence then things get weird.

  2. 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?

    This assumes (presupposes) that the importance should be placed on some kind of uniqueness. I don’t think this is how we think or feel.

    For one, how many songs about love have you heard? Or movies about aliens or serial killers? Or heroic tales? Or war tales. And most of them are quite similar too. So we clearly see value (and even enjoy) the similarity. We don’t crave for uniqueness but for slight changes of perspective. And life stories (or different minds) offer that: changes of perspective.

    (One could even argue that, given the context of the human world, a human mind *including* the life circumstances, is as unique as you can get — the things it has seen and the insights it felt. Like those lines from the android in Bladerunner, “I’ve seen things…”).

    The second idea here is that because something is plentiful or similar to some other thing (a mind to another) it’s not valuable. Diamonds are very similar to each other, but they are still valuable. We just don’t use them for their uniqueness, but for their scarcity (which is a different thing). A gallon of oil also looks like any other gallon of oil. And we have a lot of it (or had). Still, we don’t value it for its uniqueness but for the power we can extract from it. Likewise, the mind of people could still offer valuable things, despite being pretty similar or too plentiful.

    • I understand your argument that just minds are common they are not necessarily without value. But I think in a world where we can create any mind we want and reinstantiating a mind is a trivial task, the value we would put on something as simple as a human basic mind would be quote low. To being it to one of the metaphors you use it would be like the value of a barrel of oil in a world where they have achieved fusion power

  3. I was fortunate enough to cover this topic for H+ Magazine a while back:

    It’s definitely an interesting idea and the comments lead me down some paths I hadn’t really considered (like how the digital representation might not necessarily match your physical self, or any human at all). I think that, as it stands today, we’re just not putting out enough data into the Internet to facilitate a plausible reconstruction. We could probably get close in some respects but until we’re uploading a significant chunk of our lives the resulting digital resurrections won’t be much more than parlour tricks.

    • An interesting article, thanks for the link. I wonder if the big variable will be the impact of strong AI would have on the whole process. That and the impact of cross referencing personal data with everyone else’s.

    • When things like Google Glass hit the market, the bandwidth at which we’re adding to our digital breadcrumbs will go by several orders of magnitude.

  4. If there is nothing particularly special about a single human mind, as you suggest at the end of the post, then I could see it simply being offered as a public service by a future government. In the same way that the US government insures back accounts to a certain limit, a future government would back you up at periodic intervals (maybe once a year) and if you die by unforeseen circumstances then you are resurrected from your latest backup. Of course there would be limits — basic resurrection services would have coarse grained backup and may not cover certain events. But that leaves the field open for private backup and resurrection services. The point is, if we eventually nail resurrection technology it might become as commonplace as buying insurance or common medical procedures false teeth or contact lenses.

  5. What a great post. I have often said that the most powerful thing about the internet is the availability of any one person’s background and information, provided that they are using the services it offers. This is especially true for those of us born in the latter part of the Millennial Generation. For many of us, our lives from the beginning of adolescence onwards is shared online through pictures, status updates, tweets, and blog posts. Spread out though they may be, all it takes is bringing those small pieces together to get a very solid idea of the whole.

    I must admit though, I am glad I am not a child born nowadays with a parent who is an active social network user. For some of these kids, they will literally be able to scroll through their entire life day by day, picture by picture on their parents’ Facebook profiles. That is, until they get old enough to tell Mom and Dad to stop uploading pictures of them. “It’s embarrassing!”

  6. Great post,
    The question you have posed is one that I have pondered myself. It is hard not to think about how much data is collected on you for “marketing” purposes; also what if that data fell into the wrong hands?
    I think that the best way to deter this paranoid line of thinking is to consider another question that you posed, why would they want to look at you?
    The fact that they probably would not want to is reassuring, but you always have to consider that “they” could look at you if they wanted to!
    Keep up the good work…

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  9. I know this is a theoretical article, but the only problem is that data doesn’t hang around forever. If you don’t login to your dropbox, email, or any other online service for even 6 months, they start shutting your account down and will eventually delete your data for active users. In the real world no one keeps data around that isn’t needed anymore, only charitable organizations whose intention it is to do so, e.g. might do so. Even then, people will only care about the past for so long, especially when it comes to ordinary people’s lives.

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