See if you can guess the film genre from these opening scenes:
A rocky landscape as viewed through a pair of binoculars; a coach-and-horses rushing through a hastily opened pair of gates; someone looks up – there are two suns in the sky; someone picks up an old-fashioned phone – the line is dead.
Easy stuff. The respective genres are: spy thriller; period drama; space opera; murder mystery.
Okay, here’s one more: A team of scientists are hard at work in a laboratory. One of them remarks on just how close they are to discovering the secret of immortality…
Well, it’s got to be a horror story. In scene two, things will start going very wrong. Or perhaps we’ll fast forward a few years to a zombie-infested future wasteland. Either way, one can be sure the results of the research will prove disappointing.
Still, it’s all fiction, isn’t it? It’s not like anyone seriously expects to conquer death.
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Actually, they do. From cryogenic ‘suspension’ to cloning to gene therapy, there are well-funded programmes devoted to this age-old quest. Another avenue is to achieve eternal life by digital means. Writing for Quartz, Simone Stolzoff explores the weird world of “augmented eternity”…
“…in which academics and technologists explore ways the human mind might be downloaded, recreated, and transferred into other forms. ‘Eventually the mind will become migratable information, just like files can migrate from one device to another and live in the cloud,’ says Michael Graziano, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University. ‘When the information processor’—the brain—‘goes, you’ll be able to copy [the mind] and implement it in other hardware.’”
Stolzoff concedes that “eventually” might be a long time coming:
“Though there are still technical limitations to the future Graziano imagines—namely the ability to adequately image and map the brain in its intricate detail…”
That may be prove to be the understatement of the year – indeed of the decade, century or millennium (how long have you got?). Even if we accept the materialist assumption that ‘you’ consist of nothing more than meat-encoded information (as opposed to anything more meaningful like a soul), our knowledge of those patterns and how they might generate personality, memories and consciousness is either rudimentary or completely non-existent.
However, what AI probably will be able to do (and soon) is piece together a basic, but convincing, simulation of a human personality – which Stoltzoff refers to as a “digital surrogate”.
An example might be an automated Twitter account, which, after your death, continues to tweet out new statements in the kind of language you used in life. Imagine you-know-who tweeting for all eternity!
Chatbots are getting more convincing all the time – and even if the mysteries of consciousness are not accessible to mere science, it won’t be long before artificial personalities are routinely passing the Turing test (indeed, in some situations they already can).
But if that’s the direction the technology is moving in, it won’t just be used to bring fictional characters to life, but also to bring real people back to life – or, at least, an increasingly realistic simulation thereof.
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This raises endless questions. One of the most important is about ownership. Simulating a realistic ‘you’ will depend on data: i.e. whatever records exist of your thoughts, your speech patterns, your personal preferences, your relationships and what you looked like.
Who currently controls this sort of information? More than anyone else, it’s the social media giants – above all, Facebook.
You may have thought it was your photo album you were entrusting to Mark Zuckerberg – when actually it’s the shrivelled, post-modern version of your immortal soul.
Look after yourself, but delete your account.