Cover Story: Virtual Lifetimes: Immortality in the Digital World

Two epoch-defining moments lie before us, and both concern the exponential development of digital technology. The first is what techno-futurists call the ‘singularity’, which, in layperson’s terms, refers to a time when artificial intelligence (AI) will be able to self-replicate, self-design, and self-improve independently in a progressive manner. The second moment is that of ‘digital immortality’, when the entirety of our consciousness will have the potential to be downloaded from our “wet, mushy, physical brains that die and decay” (in the words of the academic, writer, and producer Dr. Peter Lawrence Kuhn) and stored indefinitely on silicon chips or in the ‘cloud’.

To be rationally considering these once purely hypothetical scenarios feels as though humankind is banging ever louder on the doors of rooms containing hitherto forbidden fruits. In the case of the singularity, we risk playing God by creating new artificial life forms. In the case of digital immortality, we are threatening to interfere with the very elements of biological existence by flouting death’s natural authority.

Inevitably, it does not matter how well we try to prepare for these moments. Truly, the vast majority of us are going to be completely blindsided by the unintended consequences of our rapid technological developments when they do come to pass. Probably the most reasonable preparation we can make, then, is to keep abreast of current advances in the world of intelligent technology and try to think ahead to how the changes will shape our future lives — not just socially but legally, politically, and philosophically, too.

Where one positions oneself in the discussion about digital immortality depends very much on how one thinks about consciousness. On this question there are two dominant camps: those for whom consciousness is the product of quantifiable processes (the materialist view) and those who believe that consciousness represents more than a mere sum of its parts (the qualia view). If one is persuaded by the former, then digital immortality is a question of when and not if. This is because it is inevitable that scientists will reach a stage of technical capability at which they are able to replicate the brain’s hardware synthetically in order to preserve its software (our thoughts, memories, and sense of self).

However, if you find yourself more aligned with the qualia viewpoint, then it does not matter how brilliantly scientists can replicate the human brain and inhabit it with electrical thoughts and memories, because the best we’ll ever get is a kind of “perfect zombie”, to steal a phrase from the neuroscientist and psychiatrist Giulio Tononi. In other words, we might well reach a stage where our thoughts and the contents of our minds can transmigrate to a non-biological platform, but whether those thoughts will actually represent ‘us’ remains doubtful.

Aside from the consciousness question, there are clearly other important philosophical and ethical debates to be had about digital immortality, including who has the right to an individual’s digital self after they die, whether one’s digitally immortal self can be edited, and/or the length of time for which one is stored. And yet, no matter how interesting the philosophical and ethical debates about digital immortality might be, we can be sure that the development of new technologies will continue unencumbered by the existential examinations taking place on the bleachers. From the point of view of pure innovation and technological advancement, questions and debates concerning the philosophical or ethical are more or less irrelevant.

If any persuasion is needed on this last point, one only really has to have a glance at how many tech companies are already looking to get their foot in the door when it comes to extending human life indefinitely. When one considers that almost all of us alive today will already leave behind an enormous digital corpse when we die, it is unsurprising that companies are already searching for ways to monetize this.

For watchers of the exceedingly popular Netflix series Black Mirror, the privatization of our digital afterlife for packaging as a program that can help resurrect loved ones is a familiar theme. For the rest, it is worth knowing the story of Roman Mazurenko, the Ukrainian entrepreneur whose best friend compiled a digital version of him using his WhatsApp chat history and social media posts after he was unexpectedly killed in a car accident. Eugenia Kuyda, the Co-founder of the company Luka and Creator of Replika, the software that brought her best friend Mazurenko ‘back to life’, is not the only one pawing at the veil that separates life from death.

Other projects currently out there are the Blue Brain Project, which is a project run by the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne that is attempting to build a replica of a fully functioning human brain; Eterni.me, which is a private venture that describes its purpose as being to preserve “for eternity the memories, ideas, creations, and stories of billions of people…like a library that has people instead of books, or an interactive history of the current and future generations”; and Kernal, another startup in Silicon Valley working at the intersection of digital and biological consciousness. Kernal aims to provide a service in the medical sphere, when patients suffering from diseased brains or degenerative cognitive diseases would normally need to go for brain surgery.

In case you wondered where Elon Musk was in all of this, rest assured, he is here too thanks to his cognitive technological company Neuralink, which is working on a ‘neural lace’ that can be injected to form a kind of mesh that sits on the human brain and connects it to a computer. In a sense, Neuralink is looking beyond simple digital immortality to a point where the human brain can be augmented with digital capabilities. However, the end result would directly involve a biological and technological interface and this would inevitably invite some form of indefinite digital preservation.

If all of this still seems completely improbable, then perhaps consider the fact that it is already currently possible in the realm of biomechanics for doctors to be able to read the electrical brain signals of quadriplegic or fully locked-in patients in order to decode them and translate them into movement or language.

In the face of these questions, a discussion about global citizenship seems like small fry. Concerns surrounding nationality and travel freedoms somehow feel quite beneath our robot overlords of the future or digitally preserved silicon selves. Nevertheless, it is worth thinking about how the world will be classified and what the impact on citizenship and the freedom of movement will be in a post-singularity/ digital immortality-affected world.

One thing is clear, though: now that there are real and legitimate discussions happening about human immortality, we can be certain that the future is upon us.

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