Disclaimer: Opinions expressed below belong solely to the author.
While recent developments in artificial intelligence (AI) pose fundamental questions about the nature of being human, they have also opened the door to our immortality — or even cloning.
Would you like to meet your family members and friends who passed away? Would you like your children to stay in touch with you forever?
Well, it’s pretty clear that existing technologies make this a realistic prospect within the next few years — most likely by the end of the decade, if not sooner.
What makes a human?
We know that AI can already write like humans do, it can mimic any voice even from a sample as short as three seconds, as demonstrated by Microsoft in January. There are also applications that can superimpose any face on any body in a realistic deepfake video.
In other words, we either already can, or are about to perfect, downright duplication of external human features of just about any person on this planet.
The missing ingredient is what’s on the inside — their thoughts, memories, behavioural traits, personal quirks and so on. But these could be filled by the person themselves, to create a perfectly realistic digital avatar that will act, speak, joke, move, look just like them.
And if you can’t tell the difference… doesn’t it make it real?
Well, that’s for philosophers to decide, perhaps, but it is very obvious that we are about to achieve immortality — if not biological (yet), then at least digital.
The idea itself isn’t new and has long been considered by both researchers and creators alike, appearing in sci-fi books, movies or video games.
Keen anime fans will understand why I used Major Motoko Kusanagi from the legendary Ghost in the Shell movies in the lead image to this article, but even those unacquainted with Japanese pop culture will find a hint in the title itself.
Does (will) a ghost of our former, human self, echo somewhere in our digital clone, built of metal, silicon and optic fibre?
This is the underlying theme of the successful series which, I believe, is applicable to our considerations here. Would computer algorithms merely act as a competent puppeteer or can a person (or his part) really be reborn in a digital form?
What if you could just open up your laptop to speak with your mum again, ask her about that old cake recipe, reminisce on the old times, or maybe even ask her for advice about your life today?
After all, since AI bots are already excellent at mimicking different styles of conversation, why wouldn’t they — if provided enough input information about the person — use it to give responses to current affairs, extrapolating on the basis of personal traits of the person they represent?
How real would it feel?
Back in 2020, a Korean TV documentary created a VR experience reuniting mother with her deceased six-year old daughter, allowing her to speak or even reach out to touch her 3D generated avatar.
A few months later the country held a concert of a music star who died 25 years earlier. And while we’re at it, let’s not forget that the Swedish pop legends from ABBA have been “on tour” for the past year, with their digital — and young — avatars doing all of the performances.
Meanwhile, another Korean company has recently launched a paid service allowing you to speak to your dead relatives, based on earlier video recordings and AI-powered simulation of speech:
It’s clear that these features are still in fairly early stages but, at the same time, are already realistic enough to fill an emotional void. It’s only a matter of time before they get more robust, more sophisticated — and not in decades, but mere years.
However, we have to bear in mind that no matter how clever they are, they remain dependent on us and what we train them with. This is why we should already start preparing for it — today — by recording and collecting all information about ourselves and our loved ones.
Going the path of professional recordings is one way. I’m sure soon we might start seeing video studios offering it as a service, to capture basic features, voice, facial expressions of a person, and so on.
The more, the higher quality, the better.
But any additional piece of input is valuable too. So we should capture even more of our lives every day — through photos, videos and audio recordings of our various conversations, to act as input for the neural networks processing our natural behaviours.
Who knows, perhaps the future trend will be to carry around a sensitive microphone around your neck, to record your voice on a daily basis as you just go about your life, to act as valuable source to replicate your personality in the most accurate way?
How you interact with shopkeepers, whether you’re nice to the waiter, what you shout in a bout of road rage.
Sure, AI may already be doing a good job with as little as three seconds, but the more we put in, the more accurate the end result is going to be.
That said these are still the easiest bits to deliver — videos, photos, sound recordings. We can all do that today using equipment we have at home. But what about our thoughts or memories?
All of a sudden, all those people that you thought were wasting time writing down what happened every day of their lives in a notebook somewhere, stand to be among the best suited for digital immortality.
Feeding AI with your recollections of every day, week or month, would provide the deepest level of intimacy and understanding of your thoughts and feelings.
And your AI clone could be made aware to keep some of these private, not just blurt it out when asked, while having a context for your personality, making the digital you more realistic.
However, if you don’t have a journal not all is lost yet.
You could always write up these records on the basis of your past memories of each year, your time at school, your relations with family and friends across different years, chronicling your life to your best ability.
The successes you cheered, the losses that hurt you, your insecurities, your ambitions, your failures.
The key is to do it as soon as possible, while memory is fresh (or as fresh as it will ever be — it doesn’t get better with time, after all).
There’s no reason to wait, we know the technology is coming, so start doing it now.
Fake it to make it?
Here we arrive at the inevitable question of — what if you just made things up and lied about yourself and others?
Well, short of tying you to a lie detector, I don’t think there’s much we could do. On the other hand, a digital clone that you would leave for your future generations is meant for personal purposes anyway.
People have always had a penchant for making themselves appear better than in reality, long before anybody thought about AI or a computer (all those chronicles documenting great deeds of monarchs spring to mind immediately).
But would you want to leave your loved ones with a false impression of yourself, that they cannot really relate to? I guess that’s for everybody to answer themselves.
To be, or not to be…?
Finally, there’s a question of ethics — though that too is more a matter of personal choice.
To some, it may appear dystopian or creepy to have a collection of relatives on your hard drive, knowing that they are — biologically at least — dead, buried in the ground somewhere.
But I think, when faced with the choice, most will err on the side of caution and opt to have a chance to speak to their loved one in case they depart this world.
Given the early reactions, it seems that it has a more of a comforting than disturbing effect.
In fact, the sheer ability to hear someone’s voice and have them speak with you, even if on the screen, even if deep inside you know it’s just a sophisticated simulation, could do real wonders to those grieving their loss.
More broadly, it could also become a remarkable archive of humanity. We’re here at the forefront, the cutting-edge, but imagine living in year 2385 and ask your great-great-great… grandfather about the pandemic of 2020. Or the footballing exploits of Lionel Messi, live concerts of Michael Jackson, how bad the winter was in 1998, and what people thought about Donald Trump.
It could become a massive vault of collective memory of mankind, comprising millions, even billions of humans for all eternity.
Ultimately, however, each one of us will have to decide whether we want to take part in it.
To be, or not to be… digitally?
Featured Image Credit: Ghost in the Shell