Entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and beyond are attempting to disrupt what has long been seen as one of the only inevitabilities of life: death.
Computer scientists and artificial intelligence specialists are developing programs that allow people to theoretically avoid death, opening the door to near-everlasting life as well as a myriad of ethical and philosophical questions.
Some inventions come eerily close to those featured in dystopian science-fiction series Black Mirror, such as Nectome, a startup that believes a person will be able to digitize their consciousness within the next century.
Nectome’s founders, MIT graduates Robert McIntyre and Michael McCanna, claim to have already successfully preserved an animal’s brain's connectomes — the neural maps that play a vital role in memory storage — and are researching the possibility of extending the technique to human brains.
At the same time the pair are developing brain-scanning technologies in order to digitize the mind.
Practical considerations include equality of access and the fair-distribution of the world’s resources, while on the emotional side it is difficult to know — as the MIT Media Lab have said — what a computer simulation of neural circuits would “‘feel’ like.”
Philosopher and bioethicist John Harris questions whether even the most cerebral human being could live on in virtual form.
“We are so much flesh and blood creatures, it is difficult to imagine that we would continue to exist in a disembodied state,” he said.
But McIntyre and McCanna are not alone in their belief that brains — or at least parts of the human mind — could be uploaded to computers.
Uncanny Silicon Valley
Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google, has predicted that by 2030 we will be able to connect our brain to the cloud. Investor Sam Altman, who co-founded the prestigious Y Combinator program that funds and supports start-ups, is another believer.
“I assume my brain will be uploaded on the cloud,” he recently told the MIT Technology Review, explaining why he has joined Nectome’s list of subscribers.
Other neuroscientists and computer scientists have dismissed the idea of “brain uploading” and have called the ethics of Nectome into question after McIntyre warned that his brain backup plan was “100 percent fatal.” In other words, in order to keep the brain fresh before it is preserved, the client must agree to be euthanized.
In April, MIT’s prestigious Media Lab, which had initially backed the research, severed ties with the start-up, reasoning that neuroscience has not “sufficiently advanced” to know whether memory and the mind can be preserved, or whether it is possible to recreate a person’s consciousness.
About a bot
Other tech entrepreneurs believe digital immortality can be achieved through less invasive means.
Artificial intelligence specialists are developing digital avatars that replicate users’ personalities and can continue to communicate with loved ones after their owners have passed away.
Hossein Rahnama, a visiting professor at M.I.T’s Media Lab, has created software that can mine the gigabytes of data that people generate on a daily basis in order to create virtual models of their minds.
The program, Augmented Eternity, will then be able to communicate memories of your life and answer questions on certain topics, such as your political views, depending on what information is stored in your data.
Rahnama is also considering inputting data into the chatbots after their owners have passed away, allowing them to stay abreast of current affairs and to even form opinions on events that happen after their death.
Rahnama said he has one prospective client, the founder of a globally successful company, who is looking to use the technology to help advise his colleagues as they continue to grow the firm after his death, though he acknowledges that his project poses a number of issues.
“This creates a lot of research questions for us around privacy of the data and accuracy of those responses,” Rahnama said.
But for Harris, the philosopher, the idea that avatars can authentically represent us after we have died is “nonsense.”
“You can extrapolate from my general positions what I would say on a whole range of issues but in no sense would that be me speaking,” said Harris, a visiting professor at King’s College London.
‘A digital tomb’
For some, just having a virtual reminder of a loved one can be enough. Eugenia Kuyda, the co-founder of AI app Replika, created an avatar of her friend Roman after he died crossing a road in Moscow. But she is under no illusion that the avatar is not really her friend.
“It’s sort of a digital tomb to come to and to mourn,” she said. “It reminds you of the way he talked. It reminds you what it was to have a conversation with Roman.”
“When people say building this avatar is actually avoiding facing the reality that someone is gone, I say ‘no, it’s exactly the opposite, it’s actually facing it,’” she added, pointing to the fact that in western culture the natural reaction is to move on and avoid thinking about someone’s death.
Lysa Toye, a grief counselor at Dr. Jay Children’s Grief Centre in Toronto, said while she encouraged people to continue a dialogue with their deceased loved ones in their heads, she was worried about outsourcing this relationship to technology.
“There’s no way even the most intelligent bot is going to be able to replicate what we understand from the inside and our intimate relationship,” she said.
Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro believes there are two levels of immorality – a personal consciousness and social immortality.
Technology, he says, can enable social immortality – allowing the dead to actively contribute to society from beyond the grave. But, he says, it cannot yet replicate personal consciousness and he doubts it ever will.
Ishiguro has created robot replicas of some of Japan’s most famous authors, allowing them to recite their works to schoolchildren across the country. He has also built an android version of himself and believes it could continue to teach robotics at Osaka University after he is dead.
“If we have an android we can live forever in society,” he said. “But personal immortality is impossible because consciousness is not continuous.”