Digital Immortality: Not When, But How?

Abstract
by Lee Frank

      The dream of immortality is as old as consciousness. Ever since the earliest humans became aware of their own mortality, they have wished—and tried anything —to transcend it. Long before the Lascauxcave paintings, countless generations interred their dead with objects (food, tools, talismans) to assist in their afterlife. Later, Pharaohs built pyramids and theologians transformed common cults into eternal religions. More recently, writers aspire to make their words endure and scientists seek to make permanent contributions to the sum of human knowledge.

      From Cryonics to Conscious Machines, we are working to turn the dream into reality, determined to make this thing happen. But is the goal of immortality a physical or a psychical self? I propose the choice between these two forms is the extension of mind rather than the preservation of matter. Immortality in digital form is the logical, and practical, alternative.

      Digital Immortality is the first realistic step toward the convergence of the results of AI and Consciousness Research. The curiosity of the researcher into consciousness overlaps the constructions of the AI investigator when the former asks, how does it work? and the latter asks, how can we implement it? Consciousness Research seeks to understand these thought processes, the specific mechanisms of how we think. Artificial Intelligence attempts to build those specific mechanisms. Underlying the behavior of investigators in both arenas is the dream that, if we can understand the mechanisms, we can devise not only true thinking machines but extend our thoughts beyond our mortal consciousness.

      Digital Immortality is how individuals will perpetuate themselves using existing digital mechanisms, and improving them. Of course, people have children, and write books, build businesses, create foundations, hold conferences, etc. But Digital Immortality is much more. While not yet consciousness nor self, it is a significant portion of both, and readily possible with present technology. However, today's digital technology will be obsolete tomorrow; and the power of tomorrow's technology easily outstrips our imagination.

      In the Digital Age, all things are possible. Every year technology produces another miracle to prove it. Why not immortality? However, the track record of our technology says it holds the key to hell as easily as the key to heaven. And this is the ethical dilemma, because Digital Immortality will come to pass. It is the natural, logical, and inevitable intersection of two indomitable forces: the movement of the digital world into the future and humankind's eternal quest for immortality.


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Last updated 3/17/02

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