What happens after you die? Well according to the gospel of the good book (the facebook that is) you are guaranteed immortality in perpetuity as long as the Facebook shall live. Mankind has agonized and lamented over the answer to this question for as long as we have been capable of recognizing our own mortality. Entire religions influencing tens of millions of people have arisen based on the promise of an answer. Now for the first time in history we may be seeing some quantifiable results thanks to social networking services such as the Facebook.
Facebook has reached a point of maturation and scope that it is estimated that over 3 million of its users may actually be deceased. I first encountered this phenomenon of digital ghosts when an acquaintance, Barry Bernard, unexpectedly passed away. He had gone to the beach and was sadly drowned by a rip current. His last status update eerily stated “Getting ready for a fun day at the beach”. Since it is facebooks explicit policy to never release password and login information Barry’s literal “last words” haunted the main page of his profile for months as people poured out their emotions over his death on his Facebook wall.
Facebook spirits began materializing in earnest with the new “reconnect” feature that encourages users to interact with other users whose accounts have been idle; the goal of the feature: to bring infrequent users back into the Facebook fold.
My sister’s best friend, Christina, passed away from a lifelong battle with cancer over a year and a half ago. Now Facebook’s reconnect algorithm recognizes her accounts inactivity and frequently pops-up her profile picture suggesting that I interact with her in some way. The first time this happened I was taken aback as well as offended by Facebooks machinic insensitivity towards a person that has passed away, clearly I cannot “reconnect” with her. However the more I thought about it the more I thought that maybe this is the beginnings of digital immortality.
In fact the issue of what is to become of digital avatars or online personas of individuals who have passed away has spawned new services that offer to manage your post-humus internet footprint, services such as Legacy Locker. Legacy Locker offers a monthly fee or a lifetime membership to manage your digital assets after your death. They provide databases to store all of your email, banking, passwords, social networking data etc… as well as whom to release this information to upon your death.
Facebook recognizing this issue has created a memorializing service. Only upon a family members request and only after investigating that the individual is in fact deceased, Facebook will move a profile to “memorialized” status. Once a profile has been memorialized it will prevent new friend requests as well as disable non-friends from viewing the profile. However, all other features remain enabled such as wall posting and photos.
Not only does Facebook now memorialize the departed it has even played a role in their departure. Cyber bullying has been a buzz word in the media since digital social networking’s inception, social misfits in real life can now be bullied twenty four hours a day seven days a week in digital life. With the advent of cyber bullying however there have been real world deaths, the teenage victims taking their own lives in some cases. Their online husks now become inverse memorials to the technology that enabled their tormentors to reach them. Granted they didn’t have to be a part of Facebook but if you’re not on Facebook you might as well be a non-person anyways.
There has been some media attention surrounding the issue of the deceased and Facebook but it is still not such an issue as to be on the public mind. As this technology grows and becomes more imbedded in our lives however, these are issues that will not be able to be avoided. Especially as the intelligence of these networks and computer intelligence increases in general. We as a society will have to devise laws as to the rights of the digital deceased.
Consider this, if a young individual now begins using a product such as twitter and continues so until their natural death that could be over 80 years of mundane and idiosyncratic information collected about nearly every detail of this persons life. As machine intelligence evolves along with this collection of personal data matrices it could be perfectly possible that the machine could reconstruct a simulacra of the deceased, continuing their twitterings and musings about their daily lives based upon constructions and analysis of their accumulated personal data, literally picking up where they left off.
I already see this happening in the example of Facebook popping up my deceased friend Christina, when she pops-up I sometimes click on her profile, scores of people still post on her wall daily about how they miss her, or about some old memory. I feel this constant interaction is due in large part to the “reconnect” feature. If this were an era pre-FB the bereaved would mourn for a time and eventually people, all but the closest family members, would move on. It is as though Facebook is the master and the profiles the marionette. Though Christina cannot respond, perhaps it is only a matter of time.
The techno-determinist and digital immortality proponent Ray Kurzwiel posits that it is through incredibly advanced scanning technology that we will be able to record every facet of our human brain and upload it, in one fowl swoop, to a digital format, existing forever as digital selves. I personally have found his method of digital integration further in the realm of science fiction than anything possible, as what is to say an exact copy of a brain would produce that brains personality. Perhaps it is much more likely that we have already begun the migration to a digital existence as we upload every minute detail of our daily lives, and slowly over time and through the evolution of machine intelligence we will all be reanimated in the ether of cyberspace.
“The future has already arrived. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” The quote is by William Gibson the visionary science fiction author of Neuromancer. This statement captures the essence of what is at stake here in the digital age. If Ray Kurzweil’s presupposition of “The Law of Accelerating Returns” holds true and technological progress is increasing exponentially rather than linearly than the next few decades will not only see great technical achievement but the very redefinition of what it means to be human.
Ever since proto-man began flint knapping hand axes millions of years ago human-kind has been inexorably intertwined with technology. Our ability to shape the world to our choosing is what has allowed humanity to inhabit every landmass on earth. For millennia the lens of technology has been used to sculpt the exterior world, now for the first time in human history the lens is being turned inward as we alter our very selves.
Every day new breakthroughs are being published in the realms of genomics, robotics, nano-technology, quantum computing, etc… that we don’t even bat an eyelash at achievements that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Once the stuff of science fiction is now becoming common place. In 2008 Junichi Ushiba and his colleagues at Keio university, using brian-computer interface technology, developed a way for people to control their avatars in the three dimensional world of second life via thought alone.
Brain-computer interfaces can already do far more than just allow us to control characters in second life. In December 2009 Italian amputee Pierpaolo Petruzziello received a robotic hand that he could not only control with his mind but that he could feel and receive feedback from as well. Combine this technology with the video that’s been circulating the web of Ishikawa Komuro Lab’s high-speed robotic hand, capable of pitching a baseball or dribbling a basketball exorbitantly faster and more accurately than a human hand, and things really start to get interesting.
The military, not to be out done, is investing heavily in new technologies of human augmentation in their never ending quest for the perfect killing machine. A 2009 blue-ribbon committee of the National Academy of Sciences is recommending that the Army expand its research into how a soldier’s brain, blood and nerves work so it can develop futuristic applications that can increase performance in combat. The study describes one application of augmented reality, to provide a virtual overlay associated with the trigger of a soldier’s weapon, which provides a sensory feedback when it locks on a target identified as a foe. The soldier can be trained so that he pulls the trigger withoutthinking, “decreasing the time between acquiring and engaging the target,” .
In addition military defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin have unveiled recent advances in human-robotic interfaces such as their 2009 presentation of the HULC or human universal load carrier (you got to love a good acronym) which is a robotic anthropomorphic exoskeleton. An onboard micro-computer senses the user’s actions and ensures the exoskeleton moves in concert with the operator enabling the user to easily lift over 200 pounds.
We are seeing voluntary enhancements and augmentation to normal human performance even in the mainstream such as pro athletes like the golfer Tiger Woods or the MLB pitcher Mark Henderson undergoing elective Lasik surgery to improve their vision beyond that of normal 20/20. Woods was already seeing 20/20 with contact aided vision but after the procedure improved his vision to 20/10 he won five straight tournaments.
Already humans with prostheses composed of advanced materials are outperforming their non-augmented counterparts. On January first 2010 Amy Palmiero-Winters was the first woman with a prosthethic leg to place first overall (men and women) in a competitive running competition. She outran the second place finisher in the 24-hour ultramarathon by a whopping 36 miles.
The Italian runner, Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee with two specialized prosthetic legs, was blocked from competeing in the 2008 Bejing Olympics after the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) introduced a rule banning competitors that were deemed to benefit from artificial help in competing. It was determined that Pistorius’s legs were able to move through the air fast than that of an “able-bodied” athlete. One spokesman for the IAAF claimed they did not pass the new rule to discriminate against the “disabled” but that “The point here is what’s going to happen in 10 years? What happens if it continues to evolve?” Very good question.
Obviously these runners did not choose to be amputees. However, it is not too much a stretch of the imagination to see how in the near future, advancements in the speed, utility and more importantly the aesthetics of the prosthesis will become so sufficiently overwhelming that an “able bodied” human athlete would willingly swap out their biological legs they were born with for the chance to be as fast as a cheetah.
Enhancements and augmentation abound, with these previous paragraphs being a slim survey of what’s already happened. To take current technologies and advancements that are in the pipeline and try to imagine the future is staggering, almost anything seems possible. Sherry Turkle an MIT psychologist believes that AI and robots will reach a point in which we will prefer to spend our time with robotic counterparts over our human relationships. Techno-determinist forecasters such as Ray Kurzweil believes that in the near future we will be able to scan our brains and reconstruct our personalities digitally, living forever, encased in silicone.
It’s hard to say what will really happen, as I find people in the sciences and technology sector put a lot of blind faith in progress. Automatically assuming that technology will set us free, they scoff at religious individuals seeking immortality for their soul while they clamor for the “singularity” with the same fervor as a zealot. However, if progress is to continue at the accelerating rate that it is today it is almost inevitable that future generations, through technological augmentation, will be much smarter, stronger, and longer lived than we can imagine today.
The desire to become augmented is an appealing one. The issue arises when we examine the socio-economic conditions under which human augmentation would occur, which brings us back to our quote at the beginning of this essay. Under the current world economic system wealth is distributed extremely unevenly, with a small fraction of the world’s population controlling a vast majority of wealth and resources. It is important as artists and designers that we begin addressing these issues now, before it is too late for the digital future.
The extremely wealthy already exploit the world’s poor and middle class for labor and production of services, off which they profit immensely. It is this class of people that will be able to afford the best and most advanced augmentations to their beings (the robotic hand for Pierpaolo Petruzziello cost 3 million dollars), under a stilted system, allowing them to become hyper-intelligent and live to near immortality.
It becomes easy to imagine a Boschian future in which these grotesquely super-augmented beings may not even consider themselves human any longer. In Jaron Lanier’s manifesto “You are not a gadget.”, a new reign of digital feudalism is in effect, with most of the worlds labor force replaced by robots controlled by the ruling elite, middle and lower class humans will become digital peasants, working for free just to be allowed to exist (Lanier).
These possible outcomes are frightening. We seem very interested in increasing the power of our bodies, or the intellect of our minds, or the length of our lives, all through technological means. Surprisingly, I see little interest or research in augmenting the things that make us most human; it is our ability to recognize the universality of our condition ,within one another, that makes life most rich.
It is empathy that I am most interested in augmenting. I believe that we can invent technological means to enhance the empathetic response in each other, allowing the world to see that we are all reflections of each other. This would foster greater understanding and cooperation among humankind, allowing us to achieve the level of unison that will be necessary in conquering global problems such as climate change, environmental degradation, world hunger, and eventually interstellar travel, and the next phases of our evolution.