Social, Economic, and Ethical QUESTIONS
by Lee Frank

      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.”[1]

      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 says “these are questions about the nature of human control and human identity.”[2]

Social Questions

      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.[3]

      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.[4]

Economic Questions
“THE RICHEST PEOPLE have catered to the ultimate ego trip and had computer copies of themselves created to achieve digital immortality.”[5]

      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.

      “True Belief in Technology begins with blind desire: If a thing can be done, it should be. True Believers marvel at the inventiveness of humankind. Like a four-year old, they are dazzled by the newest toy under technology's tree. And like any four-year old, they only ask 'why' when they can't have it now. Corporate cleverness rushes to create the next new thing —and the next, and the next—to sell to the four-year olds of this world. New technology is, simply, mass market-driven. And the four-year olds are in charge.”[6]

Ethical Questions

      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[7] 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[8] 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.

Questions for our Future

      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[9], 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?

      “Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us: day by day we are becoming more subservient to them. More men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophical mind can for a moment question.”[10]


References

[1] Sayers, Dorothy L. The Mind of the Maker, Harper Collins, 1979. (Back)

[2] Blackmore, Susan. The Meme Machine, Oxford University Press, 1999. (Back)

[3] Kondo, Yoji Ed., Requiem: New Collected Works by Robert A. Heinlein and Tributes to the Grand Master, Tom Doherty Associates, 1992. (Back)

[4] Hoffer, Eric. The True Believer, Harper & Row, 1951. (Back)

[5] St. John, DW. Sisters of Glass, Poison Vine Books 2000. (Back)

[6] Frank, Lee. The Big Squeeze (Back)

[7] Frank, Lee. “One Perspective on the Information Revolution,” 1993. (Back)

[8] Dewey, John. Human Nature and Conduct, Modern Library, 1930. (Back)

[9] Charles Perrow writes that in “tightly coupled systems the buffers and redundancies and substitutions must be designed in; they must be thought of in advance.” If not, he warns that a tightly coupled system can result in “negative synergy.”
Perrow, Charles. Normal Accidents, Basic Books, 1984. (
Back)

[10] Butler, Samuel. The Notebooks of Samuel Butler, Hogarth Press, 1985. (Back)


  Origins of Digital-Immortality Index
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Last updated 3/19/02

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