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.
The Dream of Immortality
As potential physical reality expands, we enter a new age (the Digital Age) that offers a new form for our immortality. In The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999), inventor and entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil predicted that by 2029 that machines will claim to be conscious and that these claims will be largely accepted. In Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind (1999), computer scientist Hans Moravec forecast that robots will be as smart as humans by 2040. In a recent paper (2001), no less a computer legend than Gordon Bell asserted that two-way immortality [where one's experiences are digitally preserved, and which then take on a life of their own] will be possible within this century.
In one sense, physical immortality already exists. Those alive today not only perpetuate the genes of their immediate ancestors, they also contain the genes of their most distant ancestors. This raises an obvious question for Digital Immortality. Is there something comparable to the gene in the digital world? In The Selfish Gene (1976), Richard Dawkins suggested there is. In answering another question (Are there any replicators on our planet besides genes?), he proposed the meme.
We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. 'Mimeme' comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like 'gene'. I hope my classical friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme.
However, the meme of a suitable theory of memes languished for over twenty years until Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine (1999). In it, she not only elaborated the theory, she introduced two important new elements: the memeplex and the selfplex. Memeplexes are memes that come together for mutual advantage. She showed how religions, cults, and ideologies function as memeplexes, systems that protect and replicate themselves. The selfplex is the self viewed as a memeplex, a system of memes working for their propagation.
When we compare digital storage and reproduction to the inefficiency of living systems housing and replicating memes, we see the distinct advantage of memes in digital form. What better path to immortality than the digital propagation of you as your memes? (And speaking of better paths, the hardware evolution inherent in the Internet transcends the limitations of current methods of personal digital storage and reproduction.)
So is that all there is to the dream becoming reality, to creating Digital Immortality today? Perhaps, but it does raise some questions.
The INEVITABILITY of Digital Immortality
Who can say by what exceedingly fine action of fine matter it is that a thought is produced in what we call the mind? And yet that thought when produced, as I now produce the thought I am writing, is capable of becoming immortal, and is the only production of man that has that capacity.
These words, written by Thomas Paine over two hundred years ago, were certainly not the first to express this idea. However, they serve to remind us this idea matured in the Age of Reason (not coincidentally the title Paine chose for his book). From this distance, we can look backward and see, with a little effort, how the idea has grown since.
With far less effort, we can look forward a short distance and see the next inevitable developments. We see now that Paine's book, like all books, was part of the information explosion. From our vantage point, books are only one part of a universe still expanding from the Big Bang when communication collided with computation. Now, books move into the future, securely ensconced in entropic-resistant ones and zeroes, no longer subject to the vagaries of moveable type.
Moreover, the prescient Paine suggested this, too:
If the thought has the capacity of being immortal, why not that which thinks the thought? Not necessarily the thinker, but why not that which he or she thinks with—the mind? Yet the earliest impulses towards immortality were more concerned with body than mind. This was in large part because most people already believed in the immortality of that which inhabited the body. Except they didn't call it mind, they called it the soul.
So they sought, and still seek, physical immortality. From the gruesome extremes of Cryogenics to the entertaining adventures of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, people keep putting their money where their dreams lie. Until recently, they had no options (other than authoring immortal words like Paine's) for finding this dream of immortality.
Now they do. Is it likely that so strong an impulse will not seek to employ this parallel implementation, this digital form of immortality? I think not. Not when they see it happening all around them. Not when they learn its affordability. And most importantly, not when the many who can afford it make it a commercial reality.
I first saw the inevitability of this potential at the 2000 Conference on Consciousness. I saw the convergence inherent in research coming from two directions. One was Artificial Intelligence, the other advances in understanding consciousness. I also saw a third component, the missing piece of the puzzle connecting the practical efforts of AI with the theories of consciousness. I saw the meme.
I say I saw the meme, but it wasn't my first exposure. It wasn't even my first contact with Susan Blackmore's theories in The Meme Machine (read earlier that year). But there at the conference I saw the meme in the larger context of the panoply of efforts to understand consciousness, of this extensive research into knowing our selves. What I saw was the inevitable. The implications of Blackmore's title are inescapable. If humans are meme machines, then why can't a meme machine literally be a machine?
In support, I offer another four-letter M word: Muse.
From The Muse in the Machine by David Gelernter (his italics).
The pivotal question is: Are we more interested in using the digital implementation of memes to create artificial consciousness or in preserving the consciousness of our selves?
I would suggest that the scientific curiosity towards the artificial is far outweighed by the far broader unscientific drive towards immortality—in any form. If you doubt this, follow the money. From the inevitability of the commercial possibilities to the unbounded expenditures of the very wealthy to the requests for funding from the private and public coffers, the irresistible push to extend our selves will overwhelm intellectual curiosity for the artificial.
And one more thing. While this leap into the future may be the result of science, technology wears the seven-league boots. Digital Immortality may be a major step up for the Digital Age, but all the so-called Ages since the Middle (even Paine's Age of Reason) are merely stages of the Age of Technology. As the world grows more and more dependent upon technology, most anything that is possible for technology has proven irresistible. If it can be done—and we are most certainly on the threshold of Digital Immortality—it will be done.
Biological VERSUS Digital Immortality
We got here by being gene replicators. Biological immortality promises to perpetuate existing genes. Proponents of biological immortality ignore the obvious downside: there is no way for this miracle to be equitably distributed. (For my review of Ben Bova's book, Immortality, see "Immortal or Immoral?") The likely consequence of an inequitable distribution is a division of our species into replicators and perpetuators.
At first, there will only be a few perpetuators—and they most likely will keep their new aristocracy a secret. Eventually, the world will know and innumerably more will want immortality than can have it. I doubt devices such as lotteries will placate the masses. (I also doubt that any long-term division into replicators and perpetuators will result in H. G. Wells' Eloi and Morlocks.)
It is possible, however, that perpetuators, since they are initially the rich and powerful, will offer inexpensive digital immortality in an attempt to pacify the replicators. A division of the world into biological and digital immortals is another scenario ripe for conflict. (Perhaps, there are already conspiracy theorists who believe that perpetuators exist now and are behind the advancement of digital immortality.)
It is more probable that the difference between perpetuators and replicators will be cast in terms of immortals versus mortals. This puts the current division of "haves" and "have-nots" in a whole new, and far more unsettling, light. It is hard to imagine the implementation of biological immortality for the few without extreme social upheaval, even bloodshed.
In contrast, digital immortality, precisely because it is both less desirable and less defined, is a safer path to pursue. Digital immortality is also less invasive, less disruptive, less controversial, and far less expensive. It will be more practical for more people more quickly than biological immortality. Since it will exist in cyberspace, it will use many magnitudes less of the planet's resources.
Is there any justification for our being more interested in preserving our biology than our brains? And should we not be concerned how biological immortality will alter biological evolution? As the planet fills with immortals, what is their incentive to procreate? Could biological immortality end biological evolution? Are we really ready for that?
Biological immortality has two main pitfalls. Either it will become the exclusive province of the rich or it will fatally exacerbate the crowding of the planet. A lesson we should have learned long ago is that we cannot extend life without also limiting birth. That is, biological life and biological birth. However, no such constraints seem to exist for the extension of digital life.
Therefore, why not settle for digital immortality— and biological mortality—for all? That way there will be always be biological evolution, which will not only add to the sum of digital immortality, but also continue our alternative biological future.
Perhaps digital immortality is the beginning of the digital evolution of our consciousness, of our very selves. If so, then how we implement it will not only affect the future of digital immortality but the evolution of the species.
Relation of Immortality to Consciousness
We think this and at the same time acknowledge that the consciousness of the dream does not exist during non-dreaming sleep, and that consciousness of the dream is also completely walled off from the world of our waking consciousness.
This recognition of being conscious during these different states is the great logical pillar of two somewhat disjointed conclusions. One, our consciousness has continuity, and two, that it is somehow eternal.
While asleep, when we dream we are aware of our consciousness—and its continuity. Though we lack awareness when we are not dreaming, we have learned that the same consciousness will surface in the next dream. Since death seems to share so much in common with unconscious sleep, we assume that when we take The Big Sleep our consciousness will continue just as it has for all those previous nights.
As a result, we make the leap from this given of the continual existence of our consciousness—its continuity even through the periods of unconscious sleep—to the eternal human soul. For what is our concept of a soul other than our continuity, the continuity of a consciousness disembodied from the real world, just as it is in sleep.
This is a very natural conclusion for a being that knows little more about the functioning of its consciousness than this one basic fact, as our prehistoric ancestors must have known for many tens, if not hundreds of thousands of years. Why then should we be surprised that a belief in the soul persists? Or the natural extension of that belief is the universal desire for immortality? (The belief in an afterlife is only one option for continuing our consciousness.)
We feel the seamlessness of our consciousness so deeply that we are compelled to believe in its continuity. This belief is so powerful that humans have long believed in the permanence of that consciousness in the form of a soul. Therefore, I suggest the meme of immortality is intrinsic to consciousness.
Since the continuity of our consciousness is a construct, it should be easy to grasp the fact that it's being constructed from moment to moment and accordingly no end can be inferred. The manner in which consciousness functions mandates the meme of immortality. The meme of immortality is simply the manifestation of the belief in an eternal soul—in exactly the same way that we believe in the continuity of our consciousness.
This belief in continuity is so strong that we are unable to process information to the contrary. This belief in the integrated self is necessary to the illusion of continuity. The illusion is confirmed by the oft-repeated story of the innocuous neighbor, the good family man, who turns out to be not only a killer of persons but their mutilator as well. Our reaction to such a discovery is often denial; denial that this killer could be an integrated self like ourselves. No, we say, this cannot be; this is no ordinary man who also happens to kill, this person must be insane. This is our defense, the required logic to maintain and protect the fiction of our own integrated selves.
Consciousness provides that interpretation, an integration part and parcel of, and indistinguishable from, the illusion of continuity. For how can we have continuity without unity? Without the fiction of the single, unified self, continuity is meaningless. With consciousness comes the continuous unending self, and with it the meme of immortality.
A short argument to support the integration of consciousness, continuity, and self.
The common view of consciousness is that it enables awareness of the self. It does this in waking and in dreams. This self exists, somehow, within or underneath this consciousness (or its nighttime variant), that is, separate from consciousness. The self interprets the events consciousness is aware of; the self provides the fiction of continuity. (Fiction, because consciousness is demonstrably discontinuous.)
The alternative argument is that consciousness is the self. The gaps in consciousness appear filled in just as naturally as those in our visual field appear to be. More accurately, the gaps simply do not appear. This lack of gaps is another way of saying consciousness mandates continuity—of vision, of events, of time. And of self.
The common view results in an endless regression of homunculi. The alternative says there is no self other than a fiction created by consciousness in the same simple way that there are no gaps in our visual field (easily refuted by experiment), that our successive visual fields appear in full detail like a movie (also contrary to evidence). In just the same way, we assume a similar, fully us version of our consciousness (which is also easily disproved).
Self does not exist apart from consciousness. It is consciousness' mechanism for a necessary continuity. There can be no consciousness without continuity, and no continuity without self. To state this another way: consciousness, continuity, and self are completely integrated, an organic trinity.
The continuous self, part and parcel with the necessary fiction of consciousness, gives us access to the continuum of past, present, and future—allowing us to use the past to understand the present and to try and predict, and possibly control, the future. To do this we must be aware of our self in the past, present, and future. Consciousness of self is also continuity of self. One and the same, indivisible.
Now for a defining practical question: How do self-changing drugs, like Halcyon, work? Do they somehow wall off this self that lurks beneath our consciousness, or do they inhibit the ability of consciousness to maintain its continuity of self? If the latter, then we can easily see the similarity with other mind-altering drugs, in the way they interfere with the normal perceptual process. If the former, then it is all part of the same singular deeply recursive mystery.
Thus if the common view is true, then that self is akin to the mysterious soul that has developed historically. If that is so, then what people experience as a mental breakdown is an attack (as it feels it is) on the very essence of their selves. However, if the alternative view is true, then all is far more fragile than we realize—but also far more flexible! If we can just distance ourselves from the idea of the eternal, immutable self (as soul), then we might better handle these disruptions to our consciousness.
Social, Economic, and Ethical QUESTIONS
Over thirty years ago, I wrote a poem updating the story of the genie, the fisherman, and the three wishes. I also updated the ending, saying that the moral was to ask the right questions. However, in the face of the unlimited largess of technology, I too fear an incapacity for asking the right questions has grown, in our time and our country, to the proportions of an endemic disease. (Sayers, 1976)
The greater the acceleration of technology, the greater the need to question where we are going. The more technology affects the meaning of our lives, the more important it is to discover, and ask, the right questions. The closer we come to implementing mind, the greater our apprehension about that achievement. Without understanding, such actions will be without meaning; without asking the right questions, understanding will forever elude our grasp.
As Blackmore (1999) says these are questions about the nature of human control and human identity.
One debate just beginning is whether binary is inherently better than biological. But whichever method prevails (and I clearly favor the digital), its success will be dependent upon technology. Therefore, if technology is to be the means to continue our evolution on this planet, then shouldn't our primary concern be that we learn to control it before it controls us?
For over a century and a half, one path to evaluating the consequences of technology-to-come has been the extrapolations of Science Fiction. Much of our pursuit of new arenas of technology is a direct result of these postulations of the possible. We marvel at the accuracy of many of these predictions, but ignore the obvious —that those very prognostications have directed our aims and intentions.
On October 6, 1988, the late Robert Anson Heinlein was honored with a Posthumous Award of The National Aeronautics and Space Administration Medal for Public Service. NASA's gave its highest award to this acknowledged master of Science Fiction for his direct involvement in the space program. However, this recognition could have been given for his writing alone—a major influence on everyone who worked on the space program (See Kondo, 1992).
The list of Science Fiction's specific predictions about the future that have shaped our present is too extensive for even a single detailed volume. (Although one prediction whose power they often underestimated was the computer.) Many of those old predictions, along with the new ones of today and tomorrow, continue to shape our dreams of technology, and our future as social beings.
For one instance of Science Fiction's influence on our social consciousness, note how scientists almost never discuss the fictional progression from artificial intelligence to robot to android. Why? Not because they doubt the possibility, but they understand that the idea of androids hits too close to home, to us. Scientists understand the need not to frighten the public by talking about the potential of androids, which, unlike the mechanical-sounding robot, are beings that will most likely exceed our all too-human frailties. Fiction aside, how are we to deal with the possibility that intelligent machines will easily outdistance us?
Another example of a monumental social question: How will religions react when someone suggests, as someone surely will, that digital immortality is nothing less than man's presumptuous attempt to fabricate the soul? Given the present opposition of various stripes of religious fundamentalists to the advancement of technology, one can only imagine the extreme reactions when this concept confronts religion's True Believers (Hoffer, 1951).
THE RICHEST PEOPLE have catered to the ultimate ego trip and had computer copies of themselves created to achieve digital immortality. (St. John, 2000)
You could see this quote simply as fiction—or you could imagine it as a news headline of the future. Science Fiction does more than predict the technology of tomorrow and the day after. It also, and more importantly for our purposes, attempts to predict society's reactions to that technology. Among the implications it tries to anticipate are the economic.
Digital Immortality is exactly what the Pharaohs would have done if they had our technology. While the rulers of ancient Egypt are long dead (if not comfortably interred), these all-powerful kings of antiquity could never have imagined the power possessed by the immeasurably affluent now living among us. So we have to ask: Will this lead to a digital future comprised of the equivalent of digital pyramids for the wealthiest and digital pottery shards for the rest of us?
In case you hadn't noticed, the rich do live longer —for a number of reasons. They tend to have richer parents whose wealth improves their chances of survival through the normal childhood disasters. These parents send them to better schools and colleges, and then connect them to better job opportunities. Once grown and rich on their own (with a little help from their inheritances), their wealth buys them a longer and healthier old age.
These advantages maximize their opportunity to propagate any long-lived genes they may have. Some help that process—probably not their main motive—by using their wealth to attract younger wives and bear even more children. All true, but not especially relevant for the journey of Digital Immortality. Except for this: The rich buy, and benefit from, the top of the escalating technology ladder. They are, by the power of their defining wealth, in the forefront of early adopters. Once upon a pre-mass market era, they drove new technology —but no longer. That title now belongs to the technol- ogy's True Believers.
The answer to the ultimate question about tech- nology—should a thing be done just because it can be?—is also be the ultimate question for the future of our digital selves. Yet, this is only the tip of a monstrous iceberg concealing crucial unasked questions. Here are a few speculations about our responsibilities to our future digital selves.
I assume Digital Immortality is something most people would want for themselves, as I do. That, however, is only one possibility. Take the possibility of the public clamoring for a digital copy of a dying wise man or woman. Suppose this was against that person's wishes? How do we deal with the overpowering desire of someone wanting to digitally extend a loved one? Will future wars be fought with conscripted digital copies of the lucky few who can afford them, fighting alongside the unfortunate masses, the actual bodies of those who can't? And could this war be a civil war between these two factions?
Speaking of war, computer users have been the targets of terrorist warfare for many decades prior to today's headlines. Digital Immortality raises the stakes. How do we deal with the vandals of virus should they choose to attack digital versions of our selves? If a virus destroys a Digital Immortality site, will it be murder? If merely damaged, is it a crime of assault?
Another question is how many selves to a customer; why settle for just one you? Clearly, a full formed—and fully informed—copy of you is more probable as a digital android than a biological clone. (Clones must be grown—and we're a long way from knowing how to program flesh and blood.) In a dream reminiscent of humanity's drive to proliferate to the stars, some might seek to increase their individual influence by effecting a new form of procreation and creating any number of digital copies.
About digital copies: If digital replication is evolution then where are the constraints of environment (e.g., competition for resources) to shape that evolution? That is, if memes take a digital form, and we have room to store everything digital (seemingly well within our reach today), will there be any evolutionary pressures?
Obviously, the capability for Digital Immortality includes the possibility of new digital beings. Of what use could these be without corporal reality? The answer is the one place we don't need physicality, the one place we suffer most from lack of help. I speak, of course, of the digital universe of exploding information. In an unpublished paper (Frank, 1993) nearly ten years ago, I suggested a solution in the form of an Information Valet. If we can create digital beings, why not virtual boutiques of helpful personalities? The Mister Belvedere model, please.
If we can have a store of digital personalities, another logical step is The Soul Bank. There, selfplexes would be stored in a digital limbo waiting for instan- tiation as either interactive entities of the online community (digital immortality), or as physical entities of the offline community (robots).
The opportunities are only limited by our imagin- ation. In the universe of the possible, we need to learn both what people want and what society can permit people to have. The real questions—as John Dewey (1930) knew perhaps better than anyone—are the moral questions. That is, what are the consequences of what we want? For when all things are possible, these are of necessity the key questions.
In the Abstract, I stated that In the Digital Age, all things are possible. Will we continue our evolution using our increased understanding of consciousness to substitute the memes of cultural mechanisms for the genes of biological inheritance? If so, then it is imperative that we recognize the ramifications of the obvious: Machines are capable of far more rapid evolution because they can be far more interconnected than humans. Even more pivotal is that we realize the risk that if they are too tightly coupled (Perrow, 1984), then they can also perish by pursuing, too quickly, evolutionary dead ends.
Perhaps our destiny is to contribute to the evolution of sentience by being a stepping stone to machine intelligence. Or is it possible that our future, this projected evolutionary continuum, will turn into a conflict?
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Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, 1976.
Dewey, John. Human Nature and Conduct, Modern Library, 1930.
Ettinger, Robert. The Prospect of Immortality, Doubleday, 1964.
Frank, Lee. The Big Squeeze
Frank, Lee. One Perspective on the Information Revolution, 1993.
Gelernter, David. The Muse in the Machine, The Free Press, 1994.
Hoffer, Eric. The True Believer, Harper & Row, 1951.
Kondo, Yoji Ed., Requiem: New Collected Works by Robert A. Heinlein and Tributes to the Grand Master, Tom Doherty Associates, 1992.
Kurzweil, Ray. The Age of Spiritual Machines, Viking Press, 1999.
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Paine, Thomas. The Age of Reason, Gramercy Books, 1993 (1796).
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Sayers, Dorothy L. The Mind of the Maker, Harper Collins, 1979.
St. John, DW. Sisters of Glass, Poison Vine Books, 2000.
Wells, H. G. The Time Machine, Airmont, 1964.
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