Transcending the Physical World in a Digital Age

“Progress is lovely, isn’t it?”

Lenina, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

What is “progress”? More good? Less bad? Is progress lovely? What is our final goal? Is there ever an end to progress? When do we stop innovating?

A Brave New World gives us a glimpse into a possible future world, that could soon become a sobering reality.  But, what is technology’s end goal?  One answer to this enigmatic question: immortality.

There are two major groups regarding immortality, biological immortality, which focuses mainly on achieving immortality through life extending technologies, and digital immortality, which focuses on transferring the contents of the mind to an alternative medium providing similar function.  Although there are new technologies being developed in the biological immortality sector, I will mainly focus on achieving immortality through digital means. 

“The first person to live to 1,000 has already been born”

Aubrey de Gray

Savin Baden suggests that making a distinction between one way immortality and two way immortality when discussing the topic of digital immortality is important.  One way immortality is passive, in which one can read about the deceased in a digital profile, memorial, or digital system that lives on after their death.  One way digital immortality is already a reality, as over 50 million Facebook profiles belong to one that is deceased.  Two way immortality is the “Black Mirror” immortality (and yes, there is an episode on this), where the digital entity is capable of interacting with users and the rest of the living world.  This can take shape in many ways, some examples being through chatbots or virtual humans.  Reaching digital immortality first involves archiving and digitizing humans by uploading their minds, and second, eventually adding a physical aspect by putting that digital brain into a live avatar.  Today’s technologies are not near this achievement yet, but some companies are making significant moves towards these goals, and people are buying into these ideas at astonishing rates. 

2045 Initiative

The first company, which aptly named 2045 Initiative, is trying to achieve two way digital immortality by the year 2045.  As stated as their main goal, the company is hoping to “create technologies enabling the transfer of an individual’s personality to a more advanced non-biological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality” (2045 Initiative).  The company looks to create a artificial humanoid body, known as an avatar and an advanced brain computer interface system.  At this stage in the company’s plan, they are finding ways to put the brain on a life support system while the human brain is inside the avatar, but will look to eventually create an artificial brain that will store the individuals conscious and memory. 

The company’s plan has 4 phases with an associated timeline leading up to the year 2045, in which they hope to achieve the feat of having a hologram or diagram like avatar that embodies a digital version of a specific human. 

Avatar A: This first model avatar, which was originally estimated to be popularized in or before 2020, is a robotic copy of the body that can be controlled through a brain-computer interface.  The 2045 Initiative is currently promoting an XPRIZE Foundation competition offering a $10 million prize to anyone who can build a robot avatar that can be controlled from at least 100 km away.

Avatar B: This second stage looks to transplant a human brain into an avatar after the end of the human’s life.  This system would look to provide life support for the brain, which would then allow it to interact with the outside environment.  The creation of Avatar B is desired to be achieved between the years of 2020-2025.

Avatar C: This third model avatar is one in which human personality is transferred to an artificial brain at the end of one’s life.  This brain will emulate the deceased and their personality, and is hoping to be achieved by the year 2030-2035.

Avatar D: Lastly, the final goal of the 2045 Initiative is to achieve a hologram like avatar, as seen in the plan below.  This is similar in nature to Avatar C, in which the contents of the human brain would be transferred to an artificial one after death, but the vessel is now a holographic avatar.  This is looked to be achieved by 2045 if all goes according to plan.

Although this sounds like an episode of Black Mirror, at the rate that technology is accelerating, this could be achieved in our lifetime. 

“It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity”

Albert Einstein

BINA48

Another company that is moving towards the same goal is Hanson Robotics, who made the Bina48.  Bina48 is a humanoid robot, that is a bust mounted on a frame released in 2010.  She is modeled after a real human, Bina Aspen.  Hanson Robotics went through more than 100 hours in memory, feeling, and belief compilation to create Bina48.  Bina48 engages in conversations with the outside world and also offers accounts of personal experiences, such as the personality change she saw in her brother after he returned home from war.  Bina48 got her name from her “48 exaflops per second processing speed and 48 exabytes of memory”.  In 2017 Bina48 made history as the first robot to ever complete a college level class in California at Notre Dame de Namur University.

Bina48

So looping back to Lenina from a Brave New World, is progress so lovely? Is this something that you would be interested in doing? Weigh in on the creepy/cool line?

To wrap up on the futuristic idea and strides taken towards digital immortality, I think it is important to keep this quote in mind from Hans Jonas’ “Imperative Responsibility”, which helps to give guidance on morality in this digital age.

“Perhaps a nonnegotiable limit to our expected time is necessary for each of us as the incentive to number our days and make them count.”

Hans Jonas, Imperative of Responsibility

https://www.hansonrobotics.com/bina48-9/

https://www.lifenaut.com/mindfile/faqs/

https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/158977994.pdf

6 comments

  1. Great post! This reminds me of all the sci-fi movies and cyberpunk 2077 like video games that a robotic body was controlled by the human brain, and the human textures can be integrated with metals so inherently. I always think this is too far from us and too good to be true, but after seeing so many technology inventions like AI, blockchain, robots from Boston dynamics, I started to ask myself what can’t be done in the future. The only limit is our imaginations, not the technology, and maybe someday all things we imagined will become true.

  2. While I love the idea, I think this is still more in the realm of science fiction. Considering we’ve already missed Avatar A (and are nowhere close to this goal), I think 2045 is a bit of a reach!

  3. sayoyamusa · ·

    Highly insightful post, Olivia! When I first heard of digital immortality in the class, I was overwhelmed with the idea itself…after the discussion, I’ve found the word “Homo Optimus,” who is “a technologically enhanced being who no longer depends on its natural environment,” but I couldn’t understand what it is. I appreciate you taking a deep dive and describe how it will look like. Still, I can’t believe this will be the real thing…! If I didn’t check the episode from Black Mirror, I could not imagine the world with digital avatar or Homo Optimus. I think the attempt to realize digital immortalization raises the fundamental question that what is the ultimate goal of technology. I would agree that the overall goal is to make the world a better place, but I wonder what it really means, and immortalization will be included for “a better place.” It will come down to philosophical / ethical questions.

  4. lisahersh · ·

    Awesome post! Brave New World has been on my “to read” list for ages and you just bumped it up to the top (also that Black Mirror episode is great!). I also came across this article on Twitter a while back on the topic and Digital Immortality has been occupying space in the back of my head since (https://www.technologyreview.com/2018/10/18/139457/digital-version-after-death/) – so thank you so much for doing this deep dive.

    I agree with others that this technology is still a way off, but I think so many more “philosophical” type questions need to be discussed before that happens. For starters, when digital immortality comes to fruition, how do we then define life? As your last quote suggests, does life lose its value when it’s a constant state of being for eternity? Another thing is that the human brain is so adaptable and psychological studies have shown that personality is never truly fixed (although it’s more malleable earlier on in life). Essentially, people can grow, change, develop, better themselves, etc., throughout their lifetimes. That’s one of the amazing things about being human, this ability to learn and change. Will a digital avatar be a final snapshot of a person or a true continuation of the person with the capacity for continued growth? I know no one has these answers, but as you said – “at the rate that technology is accelerating, this could be achieved in our lifetime,” so I think it’s important everyone starts to think about these things.

  5. Scott Siegler · ·

    Really cool post, Olivia! All I could think about while reading this was the show Altered Carbon. And I’m guessing that the Black Mirror episode you’re referring to is San Junipeiro? You know you’ve picked a good topic when it is showing up in so many different books and TV shows. One common theme among all of the shows I’ve seen is that this technology opens up a can of worms from an ethical, religious, and philosophical perspective which makes it another great example of how technology will be disrupting society at an enormous scale in the future.

  6. courtneymba · ·

    This is all so trippy. There is so much here that strikes a chord. The first one is that Facebook already has 50 million deceased profiles, so we are effectively already in the age of digital immortality (I had never really thought about it). Secondly, I’m creeped out by the 2045 and Bina48 items. My best case is to live fully, age gracefully, and die full of love and happy memories. No need here to be immortal.

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