As I See It: Chasing Eternity
July 17, 2023 Victor Rozek
When I was a kid, my parents enrolled me in a parochial grammar school. One day, my teacher was expounding on the joys of spending eternity in heaven. I didn’t know much about eternity – or heaven for that matter – except that eternity seemed like a very long time. So, I raised my hand and asked her what heaven was like, what would I spend all that time doing? She thought for a moment, no doubt straining to conjure a simple answer that an eight-year-old might understand.
Then she said, “Imagine your very favorite thing to have for dinner. Something you don’t often get. Now imagine being able to have it every day. That’s what heaven is like.” I thought about that for a minute and concluded that heaven would quickly become boring.
Since we humans first began pondering our inevitable mortality, some among us tried to imagine the possibility of life beyond the grave. Elaborate belief systems evolved complete with claims of divine inspiration, usually enforced by slaughter.
Whether it was partying with Odin in Valhalla or freeing the soul from karmic bondage by attaining the state of Nirvana, or simply hanging out in heaven waiting for the same meal to be served, some flavor of eternity seemed preferable to an uninterrupted dirt nap.
With advanced computer technology a less godly, but more practical form of immortality began to emerge. It didn’t require a lifetime of good deeds, or adherence to a specific dogma, or repeated lifetimes of needless suffering. Kurzweil’s notion of singularity suggested that, very soon, humans and computers will merge. Think of it as downloading your very own consciousness app.
“Living” in some advanced state of Virtual Reality has its own issues. Timing, for one. Assuming it’s even possible, you probably wouldn’t want to download your consciousness once you enter a state of cognitive decline. Nor would you want to do it too early and miss out on some climactic late-life experiences.
And although the variety of available experiences is limited only by imagination and technology, too much variety and too many choices can also be problematic – like wasting hours scrolling through titles of things you don’t want to watch. Besides, similar to having the same delicious meal served every night, there’s only so many times you can find satisfaction in enjoyable or even spectacular experiences without them beginning to pall. Whether it’s virtually climbing Mount Everest, lounging on the deck of a super yacht, or base jumping off the summit of El Capitan, sooner or later you’ll be saying: “Been there, done that, now what?” I suppose you could ask somebody to pull the plug on your virtual prison, but you’ll probably be backed-up to the amorphous cloud, where, ironically, people always suspected heaven was hiding.
Technology, however, is nothing if not an options generator. And those desirous of “living on” now have another choice – one that’s currently attainable and doesn’t even require direct participation. With the advent of AI, you can create any version of yourself that pleases you. (Or you can leave the task to your surviving relatives, but that may or may not turn out well for you.)
As we know, so-called deepfakes use image and voice likeness to create a digital version of people who can be programmed to say and do just about anything.
Bina Venkataraman, writing for The Washington Post, reports that “Amazon has promised Alexa will soon allow people to read to their grandchildren after they are dead…” Alexa, play Grampa.
Indeed, an entire industry is springing up based on the ethically delicate convergence of artificial intelligence and grief. Companies will soon reach out to people in their most vulnerable moments offering digital condolence. While digitally resurrecting the dead will doubtless become common practice, as Venkataraman says: “For now, there is something vaguely predatory about selling grieving people a product that supports the fiction that they can speak with their dead relatives.”
The larger question, argues Venkataraman, is “Should we perform from beyond the grave, too, to nourish the nostalgia of family and friends who might want to remember us?”
That question will be all but forgotten as we become accustomed to seeing the dead resurrected on screen. In Hollywood, there is a looming actors’ strike, and one of the contentious issues is the likelihood that marketable actors will go right on acting after their death – their image, voice, and mannerisms manipulated by AI. No less a notable actor than Tom Hanks recently acknowledged that even after his final credits roll, he may still be working overtime. At least his image will.
There will be many issues to resolve, not the least of which are the wishes of the actor, and who owns the rights to the use of an actor’s image after death? The problem, as articulated by Venkataraman, is that: “Copyright law doesn’t explicitly cover deepfakes, and even if it did, it would likely not be enforceable across countries.”
For most of us, being digitally manufactured will be more a matter of nostalgia than profit. So, the question is: how do we want to be remembered? When gamers create an avatar it’s often some alter ego or idealized version of themselves. Likewise, we can create a version of ourselves without flaws. Want to be taller, thinner, more articulate; have better hair, straighter teeth, fewer wrinkles? No problem. Whatever judgements you have about your appearance and communication skills can be corrected with a few voice commands and clicks of a mouse.
Unfortunately, AI is unlikely to capture the nuances and non-verbals of relationships that may have developed over decades. But the viewer’s mind will fill in much of what’s missing, as long as your image is not so far removed from reality as to be cartoonish.
Toward that end, Venkataraman suggests: “. . . putting your wishes regarding an AI avatar into your will. You might also exert some control by creating your own ghost in advance instead of leaving critical design choices to your descendants.”
In my case, my wife is an artist, and so would no doubt create a wonderful avatar of me should I precede her. I, however, am not. So, if I want to chat with a sustainable digital version of her, I would most assuredly consult her during the creation process.
Until that time, I will content myself with my favorite line from Venkataraman’s piece, her observation that: “The quest for immortality is ancient, and it’s starting to look its age.”
To which I can only reply, “Yeah, and so am I.”