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:

Statues of brass or marble will perish; and statues made in imitation of them are not the same statues, nor the same workmanship, any more than the copy of a picture is the same picture. But print and reprint a thought a thousand times over, and that with materials of any kind—carve it in wood or engrave it on stone, the thought is eternally and identically the same thought in every case. It has a capacity of unimpaired existence, unaffected by change of matter, and is essentially distinct and of a nature different from everything else that we know or can conceive.

      And especially:

If, then, the thing produced has in itself a capacity of being immortal, it is more than a token that the power that produced it, which is the self-same thing as consciousness of existence, can be immortal also; and that as independently of the matter it was first connected with, as the thought is of the printing or writing it first appeared in. The one idea is not more difficult to believe than the other, and we can see that one is true.

      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.

People have always had the urge to build machines. And people have always had the urge to create people, by any means at their disposal—for example, by art. Ordinarily these urges operate in unconnected intellectual areas, but with artificial intelligence they come together. The drive to make a machine-person is the direct offspring of both. It is the grand culminating tour de force of technology and the history of art, simultaneously. Will we attempt this feat? It is predestined that we will.

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.

Blackmore, Susan. The Meme Machine, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Gelernter, David. The Muse in the Machine, The Free Press, 1994.

Paine, Thomas. The Age of Reason, Gramercy Books, 1993 (1796).

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Last updated 3/17/02
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