Sunday, February 23, 2014

Would you like to achieve immortality by living as a robot?

Humans have always been fascinated with the notion of immortality. Many ancient mythologies have included memorable characters who went to incredible lengths to achieve immortality. Technological advances are putting a new spin on the concept of immortality.  The concept of digital immortality has been around for many years. Recently, a few people at MIT created a company around this concept.  

The premise behind digital immortality is relatively simple. Every day you create a large amount of digital footprints (unless you live off-the-grid in some remote jungle). Your digital footprints can be mined to learn how you “think and act”. Here are some examples of what the cyberspace knows about you:

  • Your likes and dislikes. Your Facebook and Twitter account can be mined to learn this. Your on-line (and credit card) purchases can also be used to learn what you like.
  • What you are likely to know. Based on books, forums, newsfeed, and blogs that you read, the cyberspace can build a model of what you know. Your participation in MOOCs can also be helpful in collecting this information.
  • Your value system. Your writings including tweets, blog posts, emails, comments, and product reviews can be analyzed to figure out what you value and your opinions. 
  • Who do you know and how you interact with them. Your professional and personal social network can be mined to figure this out.
  • Where have you been. Your car, your cell phone service provider, airlines, and hotels know where you have been.
If you are willing to cooperate, all of this information can be mined to create a virtual avatar of you. This virtual avatar can be used to make predictions about what you like and dislike. This avatar can also tweet using your style and post comments on Facebook and blog posts. It can even offer advice to your friends and family over the email/chat. For example, if your friend is going to Tokyo, your digital avatar can give him advice on where to find good vegetarian food (assuming that you know where to get good vegetarian food in Tokyo). If the digital avatar technology becomes really good, your avatar can live in the cyberspace when your body is unable to nourish your brain.

I am not yet sure what will be the right business model behind offering digital immortality. Advertisers would not care about the “opinions” and “eye balls” of deceased people, so the companies offering digital immortality are unlikely to make money from advertisers. Perhaps you will need to set a trust fund to pay for your digital immortality. Perhaps companies will charge you a large sum of money upfront while you are still alive. I am not sure what will happen if the company hosting your digital avatar ceases to exist. If we go down this path, we will also need to develop technology to create immortal companies!

If a good digital avatar can be created for a deceased person, then it should be possible to give a body to that digital avatar by putting it in a robot. Advances in humanoids should soon be able create robots that have locomotion capabilities of humans. Your body can be scanned and the robot can be made to look like you. Perhaps 3D digital model of you can be “airbrushed” to give you features that the mother nature forgot to give you.  I believe that technologically speaking, it should be possible to offer you an opportunity to live as a robot in less than fifty years.

I am not sure if living as a robot is a good idea for most us. Here are my concerns:
  • A robot consumes significant amount of energy and it will need to be repaired every once in a while. So it will take real resources to offer robotic immortality to deceased people. More than sixty million people die every year, so if this idea were to become popular, lots of resources will be tied up in serving robotic avatars of deceased people. I am not sure what the society will get in return.   
  • What happens if your trust fund that is paying for your robotic avatar does not do well in the next recession? Will the robotic avatar of you need to be “put to rest” in that case? Clearly, you won’t be immortal after a bad recession!
  • What if a hacker corrupts the algorithm driving your digital brain and you start acting in an erratic manner that makes your robotic avatar look like a lunatic? Can you become “digitally insane”?
  • What happens to your internal value system over time as the society evolves and its value system changes? Will your archaic value system make you look like an out-of-touch idiot in hundred years? Please keep in mind that even the digital models will “age” with time.
I think immortality is a mirage. We should simply embrace the fact that nothing is immortal (even the sun is supposed to die in few billion years from now) and instead focus on living our lives to the fullest extent while we are alive. We should all be remembered by our deeds. If the posterity sees a real value in creating a robotic avatar of a deceased person, they will do so and it will remain “alive” as long as it offers a useful value to the society.      
Technologically speaking, it will be possible to live as a robot in fifty years from now. However, it will only be worth living as a robot if the society gains something positive from our robotic avatars.