What if the last words said about a person are not the eulogy? Whatever is said as someone’s mortal remains are laid to rest is probably the nicest things anyone will ever say. Faults and failings are overlooked and only the good things are remembered. Now, all this heartwarming and nostalgic reminiscence will be ruined as modern science looks for a way to bring back the consciousness of the dearly departed.
Of the current approaches to technological resurrection, the least offensive is one geared towards comforting the survivors. An article in WIRED tells the story of James Vlahos and his efforts to keep his father alive in silico. Using conversational computing, Vlahos aimed to create a chatbot that would emulate his father by drawing on transcribed conversations the two had in the months preceding his father’s death from metastatic lung cancer. The conversations amounted to 91,970 words, or 203 single-spaced pages of 12-point font. Not a lot from which to recreate a personality… Fortunately, Vlahos’s father had a unique way of expressing himself, employing jokingly pretentious language and a wry sense of humor. Programming the chatbot with this idiosynchratic speech pattern helped to create the illusion of engaging in a conversation with his father. Overall, the chatbot proved jarring to those who were close to Vlahos’s father (“It is very weird to have an emotional feeling, like ‘Here I am conversing with John,’ and to know rationally that there is a computer on the other end”), but helped to preserve the memory of the man for his grandchildren.
As an introvert, the thought of having to make idle small talk, even as a post mortem emulation, is unacceptable. I hereby declare my intent never to be resurrected as a chatbot. If anyone in my lineage tries to do this for any reason, I promise to find a way to haunt you.
But back to the technology…
Another method of digital immortality has been recently pitched as a startup company, a mind-uploading service that is “100 percent fatal.” The gist of the idea is that a client will be euthanized by being pumped full of embalming-like chemicals while close to death, but still alive. A living brain is essential to the process, since the chemicals serve to preserve the brain in microscopic detail, and a dead brain will have been damaged by the process of dying. Unlike cryonics, where heads or bodies are frozen after death with the wild hope that death can be fixed in the future, the preserved brain will not be brought back to life. The preserved brain is viewed as a computer that has been turned off, but still contains information. Preserving the brain will allow scientists in the future to retrieve information that’s present in the brain’s anatomical layout; specifically, they’ll map the connectome — all the connections (a.k.a synapses) between all the neurons — to recreate a person’s consciousness and then upload this into a computing environment.
Sounds nifty, but neuroscientists are advising investors to be highly skeptical of this approach. The connectome is necessary, but not sufficient to encode memory and/or consciousness (whatever that is). Sam Gershman, a computational neuroscientist at Harvard University, reminds folks that things are a lot more complicated: “You need to know the synaptic strengths, if they’re excitatory/inhibitory, various time constants, what neuromodulators are present, the dynamical state of dendritic spines. And that’s all assuming that memories are even stored at synapses!”
Michael Hendricks, a neuroscientist at McGill University, sums up my feelings on digital immortality through brain preservation: “Burdening future generations with our brain banks is just comically arrogant. Aren’t we leaving them with enough problems? I hope future people are appalled that in the 21st century, the richest and most comfortable people in history spent their money and resources trying to live forever on the backs of their descendants. I mean, it’s a joke, right? They are cartoon bad guys.”
Because, really, what do we have to offer the future? In a society capable of resurrecting a person from bits of brain matter, any skills or knowledge possessed by we, the ancient ancestors, will be useless in such a technologically advanced culture. What could prove especially embarrassing are the quaint and horrifying beliefs from the present (…at least, I hope the future will have matured away from our current state of childishness and selfishness).
Currently, a lot of historical bad behavior is excused and glossed over. He was a man of his times. People say this when they are confronted by some unpalatable truth about an ancestor. Most of us (but, based on recent events, not all of us) would quickly flip the page on the genealogical chart when we find some despicable person in our lineage who earned a living by unscrupulous means, e.g. capturing other people and selling them into slavery. Similarly, our present-day failures to do the right thing because there was a little bit of money involved will bring shame to our descendants.
In Soul Search, Cam explains to Fia the guiding principle in dealing with those who have passed on: “As in life, so in death. If someone is a bastard in life, unless there is some epiphany that leads to a sudden conversion before death, it is likely that he will also be a bastard in death.”
If digital resurrection becomes widespread, we all run the risk of becoming ‘that’ ancestor, the one that makes descendants cringe at the thought of sharing genetic material and fabricate reasons why they might have been adopted. And our newly resurrected consciousness would happily display the demons of our worse nature, being totally out of step with the ethos of the future.
Yes, I ate the flesh of other sentient beings. We didn’t have nutrient replicators and, quite frankly, they were delicious. [Descendant backs away and retches.] And, yeah, medical care was a privilege for those who could afford it. Lots of people died from stuff that could have been treated. Oh, and sorry about what we did to the environment. We figured you guys would be smart enough to fix it all and doing something at the time would have been a hassle for us. [Descendant snarls and violently switches off animator housing our consciousness.]
Mortality is a gift to future generations. Use it wisely.
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Photo credit: PIT Bioinformatics Group (Budapest Reference Connectome)
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