Immortality at the Click of a Mouse?




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Human beings have always longed for immortality. Magic potions, fountains of youth and time travelling are just some of the ideas found in fantasy and science fiction. However, the digital world is not lagging far behind. If we want to become immortal we now have another option: when we pass away we can leave our digital being behind.

That is what is being claimed by the start-up project Eterni.me. Developed as part of MIT’s Entrepreneurship Development Program, it already has thousands of registered users.

Eterni.me is a project that could integrate all the information we have produced online and use it to create a digital simulation of us as individuals. Our discourses, our possible answers to questions, and even characteristics such as our voice could become part of our digital avatar. If taken further, these kinds of digital technologies could one day even be used to develop videos or some kind of holograms of us once we are dead.

Eterni.me is the product of an ongoing attempt at creating artificial intelligence online. Its prehistory lies in the chatbots, talkbots or Artificial Conversation Entities which started to appear online almost two decades ago, although the very first versions date back to the 1960s. Some examples include Jabberwacky, Dude and Alice.

Not so many years ago, certain sites made use of these technologies to claim that they could create a “digital you” by interacting with these robots, chatting, and exchanging ideas. The more we interacted with this programs, the more information they were going to be able to gather from us, and therefore, their recreations of us would become more “complete”. By paying a certain sum of money, these sites would keep our programs for loved ones to chat to anytime they wanted.

Eterni.me draws on these ideas, trying to integrate not only our conversations with one program, but actually compiling most of the material we produce in communicating digitally – that generated on Facebook, Twitter, Skype, blogs, and so on.

For some people this idea is exciting or even seemingly inevitable, since it’s human nature to try to leave a mark and be remembered. Creating simulated digital replicas of ourselves is certainly simpler than becoming a famous artist, prophet or revolutionary. Of course it may benefit not only ourselves but the general public, as expressed by Marius Ursache, from Eterni.me in Wired, “can you imagine how it would have been… [to]… preserve Socrates or Einstein?”

In one of the episodes of the British TV series Black Mirror, broadcasted in 2013, the director Owen Harris brings to the screen some of the implications of digital replicas. A mourning pregnant wife decides to “bring to digital life” her deceased husband who was an “avid user” of digital new media. She seems so excited about the option that she buys an artificial body which appears like a clone of her loved one.

As we could expect, important human factors seem to be missing in the end, and this is precisely the main complaint voiced by critics of this area of technological development: However good a replica gets, it’s always going to lack the authenticity of a real human subject. We can recreate the appearance of a mind, but at least until the dawn of computer sentience, the essential subjectivity, the person themselves will necessarily be left out of the picture.

However, this does not seem to be an obstacle for the developers and enthusiasts of these programs. The sound of “I can die but my online self will be there to help you,” seems very tempting.

References

Abu Shawar, Bayan; Atwell, Eric. (2007). Chatbots: Sind Sie wirklich nutzlich? (are they really useful?). LDV-Forum Journal for Computational Linguistics and Language Technology, vol. 22, pp. 31-50.

Abowd, G., & Mynatt, E. (2000). Charting past, present, and future research in ubiquitous computing ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, 7 (1), 29-58 DOI: 10.1145/344949.344988

Image via Ociacia / Shutterstock.

Lorena Nessi, PhD, MA

Lorena Nessi PhD is an award winning journalist, researcher, and cultural sociologist. Her Bachelor's was in International Relations, Master’s degree in Globalization, Identity and Technology, and PhD in Communication, Sociology and Digital Cultures. She received the Avina scholarship for investigative journalism while working for the BBC. Her fields of interest include digital cultures, sociology, social media, technology and capitalism.
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