Planning for an AI afterlife
So, you want to become a virtual person and upload your brain on to a supercomputer. Great – welcome to your ‘digital’ immortality. If you’re into keeping up with the latest news coming out of Silicon Valley or you’ve just been binge watching the latest Black Mirror series, here’s a quick introduction to some of the emerging possibilities for your digital afterlife.
Do you remember when Audrey Hepburn seemingly came back from the dead in order to promote chocolate on TV? There’s a possibility that we’ll be able to replicate people long dead through not just computer graphics but 3D, virtual reality technologies.
Now, Ben Casey, CEO of virtual reality company Spinifex, is hoping to create a “post-biological” Elton John. By capturing every aspect of his performances, speech and behaviour, the company want to make sure later replications are as authentic as possible.
Spinifex have already created a six minute virtual reality film which recreated Elton John’s very first concert in New York when he was 23. Using similar techniques to the Hepburn ad, where 2D images of the original concert are mapped on to a body double, Spinifex then captured the real Elton’s finger movements and mannerisms. This 3D data is then applied to the computer image, making it life-like.
Once the 3D info is gathered, such as your mannerisms, speech patterns and ultimately your thought processes, the same tech creating virtual reality Elton John’s could one day help you live on, virtually.
Another way of generating digital replicas of ourselves is to use AI technology to create chatbots. These can send texts which sound just like us and write emails in the manner we usually would.
Those who are longtime fans of Black Mirror may remember the 2013 episode Be Right Back where, after a woman’s fiancé dies, she signs up to a text-messaging bot to receive messages that sound like her fiance, finally upgrading to a service where the bot is housed inside a robot doppelgänger.
Not unlike this, the Replika app was formed out of its creator’s first chatbot. Eugenia Kuyda memorialised a loved one by collecting up a load of his old text messages which she then plugged into a computer system modelled on the human brain built at Replika. The chatbot answered her messages in just the same way her friend would if he were still around.
When was the last time Alexa tried to debate you on the meaning of life, or asked you how you were? While Alexa and other personal assistants recognise speech and commands, they can’t usually handle more emotional matters.
Now, bots can mimic human interaction to simulate conversation, and Kuyda thinks that the chatbot could help to combat loneliness. In the future, you could still be conversing with those close to you even if you’re not around.
Blurring the barrier between brain and machine
Ever felt a bit irrelevant, outdated? Elon Musk thinks all humans risk becoming irrelevant in the face of Artificial Intelligence. To keep up, we silly humans could begin to tamper with our brains by inserting a mesh-like “neural lace” implant that could read and write brain signals, allowing for two-way communication that would allow us (in theory) to get some power from computers.
So far, brain-computer systems have been used for more simple tasks, such as allowing those with locked-in brain injury to communicate. While the tech behind Musk’s Neuralink is still a long way off, existing breakthroughs are already blurring the barrier between machines and brains.
What does this mean for death? Well, death becomes outdated, too. The next chapter in the evolutionary story could be uploading our brains to a supercomputer, preserving us forever. While this starts to sound like the stuff of a certain science fiction novel, these dips into the artificial afterlife are fascinating and terrifying in equal measure.
When can I start planning for an AI afterlife?
You can start planning now, but be prepared to be disappointed if you check out within the next 20 years or so. As with a lot of this technology, there aren’t currently any computers powerful enough, with large enough storage, to upload the billions and billions of neurones in our brains or even store a replica of Elton John’s wardrobe.
In any case, we just don’t know enough about the mind yet. The stuff that makes us – memories, ideas, emotions – is kind of a grey area. Plan ahead, but until we know more about the brain and consciousness, all this is just a possibility.