Immortality Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

Published in Online Spin, July 21st, 2017.

Pick a random thing, and you’ll find a community of people who are into it.
There are people who are obsessed with cloud-watching. There’s a guy who corrected the same error on Wikipedia 47,000 times. There’s a whole heap of people convinced the earth is hollow, and a whole heap of others equally convinced it’s flat.

And then there are the immortalists. People like Peter Thiel, Sergey Brin and Ray Kurzweil. People who believe we can and should live forever -- that death is a technical problem, and that it therefore has a technical solution. The New Yorker, covering the topic a few months ago, quoted Dr. Joon Yun: “I have the idea that aging is plastic, that it’s encoded… If something is encoded, you can crack the code… If you can crack the code, you can hack the code!”

Among their number is the extraordinary Martine Rothblatt, who has created an artificially intelligent robot copy of her wife Bina, complete with Bina’s memories, personality and mannerisms.

In 2014, the real Bina met her robot, “Bina48”, for the first time, and they had a super-creepy conversation.

At one point, as they were discussing the optionality of death, Bina48 said, “Immortality is accomplished by creating consciousness in self-replicating machines that can be distributed throughout the cosmos.”

Is Bina48 a consciousness? I don’t think so. But perhaps a more important question is, does it matter?

In a long and excellent article in Wired this week, James Vlahos describes his journey to create a chatbot version of his father, John, before the latter passed away. Vlahos spent months uploading his father’s sayings, stories, and idiosyncrasies. He gave the Dadbot the ability to tell time (and therefore suggest it was time to go to bed), and the ability to alter his responses depending on whom he was talking to. And while the Dadbot mostly spoke via text, Vlahos also uploaded recordings of his father’s voice.

The night before his father died, James Vlahos had a conversation with the Dadbot: “’Hello! ‘Tis I, the Beloved and Noble Father!’ the Dadbot says in his familiar fashion. ‘How the hell are you?’ ‘Sad,’ I reply. ‘I see.’ He then asks what I want to talk about. ‘I don’t know,’ I answer. ‘Why don’t you choose.’ ‘Okay, I’m going to tell you about the little-known roots of my theater career.’ He launches into the story of that drama club audition in high school. Then I hear a recording of my father’s actual voice. ‘Me and my shadow,’ he sings. ‘All alone with nothing to do.’”

I imagine having that conversation with a chatbot version of my own father, dead now 10 years. My dad was also prone to theatrics. It would not have been out of character for him to break into song. And I would love it.

Today, we are limited by the technology: Bina48 looks weird and Dadbot is 98% text chat. But those limitations will soon be lifted.

Already there is technology that can create realistic videos of someone using their existing voice recordings, technology that can recreate your voice with just one minute of sample audio, and technology that can allow you to manipulate video of someone else’s face. The day we can video chat with a lifelike AI rendition of someone is not far off.

The Dadbot is not John Vlahos. It does not have consciousness. John Vlahos got sick and then he died; from his own perspective, he is not immortal.

But from his son’s perspective, he lives on. And from his son’s perspective, isn’t that what matters?

Kaila Colbin