Eternal life: Digitally overcoming our own mortality?

Eternal life has always been one of mankind's longings. Modern technology is bringing us ever closer to the fulfilment of this dream. We can already create lifelike holograms of deceased relatives, and service providers offer digital time capsules and dialogues with the deceased persons by means of AI. Alexa Brandt has looked into what is already possible, what is being researched - and she has asked herself whether eternal digital life is worth striving for at all.

Diving into the research for this article, an 80s earworm rings in my head: "Forever young" by AlphaVille. In the song's lyrics, the singer celebrates youth, but also asks the question: "Do you really want to live forever?" The matter of eternal life has been on our minds since the beginning of time, knowing very well that this option does not exist and that this is just a thought experiment. Or is it not? Will digitalisation even take on death in the end?  

Digital immortality: Nothing is impossible in fiction 

The film industry has been dealing with this issue for years. One example is the Amazon series "Upload". It is set in the year 2033, and the people in it are able to upload themselves into their self-chosen afterlife. The story is indeed a criminal case. However, it also deals with the desire to make one's own personality available beyond death. 

Another example can be found in an episode of the Netflix series "Black Mirror". After the death of her boyfriend, a woman develops an artificial intelligence to simulate his personality and voice. In the end, the AI does not replace the lost loved one. Instead, it constantly reminds the protagonist of her loss and the grief it triggers. 

Digital survival is also the theme of the 2013 film "Her" starring Joaquin Phoenix. The newly separated, shy Theodor enters into a love affair with an AI-learning operating system on his computer. And "Samantha" learns quickly, is empathic, teaches Theodor to better understand his feelings and to express them. In the end, however, the created substitute is not able to let the ex-wife's personality live on in digital form in such a way that it could really replace her.

Holograms and avatars as digital representatives 

Not only in the film business, but also among music stars the topic has arisen. There is the US rapper Kayne West. He sent his wife Kim Kardashian very special greetings for her birthday. In the form of a lifelike hologram of her deceased father. In 2017, the rock band Black Sabbath went on a world tour with a hologram of their dead lead singer Ronnie James Dio. The Swedish band ABBA - although all four band members are still alive - also had themselves immortalised as avatars in a digital environment. When asked if the 70-year-old pop legends would release another album in the future, the band members answered that it was unlikely. At most, it could happen in a second life. After all, their digital versions would live on. This example gives an idea of what might become possible for the rights holders of their music through a "digital resurrection" after the band members have passed away. 

"Forever" available in small digital formats

"Here after" goes one step further. The topic of time capsules is supplemented by AI: communication with the deceased. Anyone who wants to use the service must do so while still alive. So the service is free of charge. Those who want their surviving relatives to be able to have a dialogue with a digital version of their deceased self later on will be asked to pay. 

Digital eternity raises ethical issuesf

The situation is different when the initiative to digitally reincarnate or resurrect a person is initiated by a third party without the deceased person having consented to this during his or her lifetime. In this case, ethical questions about how and how far one may go must be allowed. So anyone who wants to retain control over their digitally spread ashes beyond death should take precautions. This applies to digital traces on the net, for example in social media.

As technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, we will have to deal with another aspect in the long term. What can be done with information about one's own person post-mortem in digital terms. This is becoming increasingly important in order to exclude abuse. Who can say whether the words of the digital paternal double in the Kardashian case would have been uttered by him in this way? But the words put into his mouth now exist. They construct a reality whose truthfulness may be questioned. Personal stories are written and passed on to the next generation. 

Exciting field for science and cyber industry

As early as 2014, Martine Rothblatt, founder and CEO of a biotechnology company, dealt with the advantages and disadvantages of digital immortality in her book "Virtually Human: The Promise - and the Peril - of Digital Immortality". For her, it was clear that the personality and consciousness of people could be transferred to digital avatars in the future. These cyberbrains, simulated by software and computer-based technologies, would not only have an individual benefit. They could also become significant for the improvement of human existence in general. At the same time, Rothblatt warned of the possible risks and challenges. She was referring to the ethical and social implications that could accompany the introduction of digital immortality. She finally realised her first model of a virtual human being together with the roboticist David Hanson: BINA48 is based on the model of Martine Rothblatt's wife Bina.

The neuroscientist and neuroengineer Randal A. Koene is a proponent of the idea that we will eventually be able to digitise brains. This would make our minds independent of our bodies. For Koene, this is less about digital survival after death. But it is also a step in that direction. The upload would add the uniqueness of one's brain to the previously discussed reconstruction of a personality based on digital data. Such ideas of "mind uploading" still sound extraordinarily "mind blowing" at this point in time. 

Creating human-like robotic beings has been the focus of Japanese robotics engineer Hiroshi Ishiguro's work for years. His androids may be outwardly detailed images that mimic human-like behaviour with the help of artificial intelligence. But what makes us humans so unique is our consciousness. Researchers are also trying to get to the bottom of this by means of digital technology and AI applications. And not just since yesterday. This is precisely where the work of the interdisciplinary Human Brain Project (HBP), which has been funded by the EU since 2013, comes in. Numerous neuroscientists, computer scientists, engineers and mathematicians are working there to decode how the human brain works. The insights gained could provide clues as to how the human brain can one day actually be digitally simulated in order to be able to independently control perception, thought processes or even emotions.

Tangible digital images?

Back to what is already possible: holograms and avatars. Here, the next step to "resurrect" people even more realistically could be to make the digital images tangible. So far, this does not exist. And not every idea will work in the future.

For me, the question also arises: should we even be striving for this? Wouldn't it make sense, instead of creating more physical products from valuable raw materials, to stay with the digital images in digital environments? And instead create haptic feedback systems that convey the feeling of being able to touch a digital avatar or being touched by it? To generate these signals, one could resort to the use of vibration, air pressure or oscillation of electromagnetic fields. Who knows, maybe someone somewhere in the world is already working on exactly this idea...

An insurance issue?

By the time we let deceased people live on through digital copies, at the latest, there are some legal things that need to be regulated. And where there is law, there is always also injustice. Or in the worst case, criminal energy. As we know, people can protect themselves against both with insurance. For this, a consensus would have to be found. About which rights and obligations are transferred to the digital copy of the human being. What rights and obligations apply when artificial intelligence is well trained to act independently and autonomously, as impressively depicted in the classic film "Westworld - The Ultimate Resort" from 1973. The film already addressed the important topic of "trust and AI" at that time.   

See you in Metaverse – dead or alive? 

If the ideas that already exist today and those that could still come find their audience in the broader masses, a certain form of eternal life might not seem so surreal in the long run. But if we are to live forever, then at least "forever young". Agree? 

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