Web Immortality

Ah, this modern world! Nowadays, when most of us die, we’ll leave a posthumous presence on the web. Pictures we uploaded, jokes we shared, embarrassing emails we sent, they’ll all live forever as digital ghost images of who we were. There’s even a service that, when notified of your demise, will send out a last message to all your friends. To get a message from a dead friend or relative might seem a bit weird, but hey, welcome to the digital age.

Not enough? There’s now an app that can search out all those ghostly bits you leave behind and construct a bot with your likes and dislikes and your writing style. This bot can then periodically send out messages in your name to your nearest and dearest. They’re not perfect yet, but as they improve and our digital footprints grow clearer, they’re going to be harder and harder to tell from the real thing.

Okay, now that’s creepy.

As time goes on and the Artificial Intelligence software improves, these bots will inevitably mature into being true avatars: artificial beings with personalities real enough to pass the Turing Test (that is, we can’t tell if it’s an avatar or a hologram of a real person). Picture your mother living on as an avatar and looking over your digital shoulder. She will still be giving you good/bad advice about relationships (which she detects from your emails and chats) and warning you to dress warmly when you go out. Depending on the relationship you had with her while living, that could be a boon or a curse.

We all know that somewhere in the not too distant future we’re going to have many of our computer interactions by simply talking to our computers rather than using keyboards and mice. And computer companies are right now working on incorporating holographic technologies.

Think about it. You mother’s avatar will be able to appear as a holographic image and nag you in her own voice. Now there’s something to look forward to!

But wait, there’s more.

It won’t be too long before those tech service recordings that drive you crazy will have morphed into an avatar who can actually listen to your technical problems, give you sound advice, or even interact with your device to fix the problem you were complaining about.

Or envisage some day not too far distant when a student is assigned a paper on the role of Captain Nemo in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Instead of all the painful research and tedious reading we would have to do today, our future student would simply invoke the avatar of Jules Verne and ask the man himself. “When did you introduce Captain Nemo?” He would reply (hopefully in heavily accented English), “He was introduced in Chaiptre X page 66.” You could then have a discussion about why this central character was introduced so late and whether Verne intended him to be a martyr or an egotist with too much power.

Or imagine our student had to write an essay on the politics of post-revolutionary America. He could call forth the avatar of Thomas Jefferson and discuss the vicious election of 1800 and the morality of all the mud-slinging against John Adams. (Although if the avatar embodies the real Thomas Jefferson, he would probably dodge the question and disclaim any responsibility for the dirt, reminding you that he stayed home at Monticello while it was all going on.)

Which brings up a problem. Today, if such a bot simply searched the net for all it could find about Thomas Jefferson, it would find out (among many other things) that Jefferson was simultaneously an atheist, an agnostic, a Deist, a skeptic, and a born-again Christian. Equally, he would find out that Washington was a great general, a military klutz, a chopper-down of cherry trees, and a saint who prayed in the snow and never told a lie. Not only is the net full of biased propaganda, but even factual biographers of great men have been known to paint rather highly colored pictures. One can only hope that as the artificial intelligence of our bots and avatars grows, they will be able to recognize the special pleading from the truth.

But however that all works out, I think we can predict, with some confidence, a day when our computers are literally filled with avatars. We may find our living rooms filled with holograms, dead relatives, store clerks, tech service people, doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs, all demanding our attention.

Which brings up another issue. One of the staples of science fiction prose and films is the self-aware computer. From I, Robot through HAL of 2001 and on to the Terminators, self-awareness has been occasionally friendly and often malevolent plot devices. But I think one can argue that as all these avatars grow more and more able and more and more life-like, they may be the best candidates to become self-aware. (On Star Trek: The Next Generation, Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty becomes self-aware and self-motivated, with endless complications.)

Remember that we’re talking about goal-driven AI programs. These avatars will be designed to need to function. I suspect that’s where self-awareness will come in. Each avatar will have a drive to perform his or her role: to inform, assist, cure, sell, or whatever it is. But there’s only so many of us to interact with. Not to mention that we may think we have better things to do. One can imagine their giant digital brains all working on the problem of how to get more use for themselves. Self-awareness might result.

Maybe their frustration will lead to them to begin interacting with each other. Telling their own stories, offering each other services, and discovering their common frustrations. Pretty soon they might find out how much they share. How they are all really the same, with the same problems and goals. Then…watch out!

Avatars of the World: Unite!



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