From the Holy Grail and the fountains of youth, to anti-wrinkle creams screaming from every device, humans have always lusted after immortality. But how far away are we actually from it? Does technology like artificial intelligence spell a chance for us to live on after death — and if given the chance, would we take it?
Pete Trainor, applied artificial intelligence designer, technologist and mental health campaigner, used his slot at Interact London (a UX, design and AI conference I attended last week) to share the story of his friend James. James suffered from epidermolysis bullosa, a genetic condition that causes the skin to blister from minor trauma or friction. But James was much more than his illness.
When he met Pete, James spoke a great deal about what his legacy would be. He wanted to transcend his body and share his philosophy of life with those he couldn’t physically reach. Enter Bo, an AI-infused robot.
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Pete documented James’ thoughts and voice in data sets. An algorithm linked these by theme and intent, while machine learning filled in the gaps. Part glorified Amazon’s Alexa and part miracle, Pete noted that while the machine will never be James, Bo could respond to prompts and recognise faces, moods and tones.
However, in the process of building Bo and transferring James’ thoughts, memories and philosophy into it, Pete strolled right into a strange and liminal space in the human condition that left my head spinning.
Following the talk, I wandered around the British Museum’s Egyptian exhibition. Perhaps a somewhat questionable, existential-crisis-inducing decision, but it revealed a fresh perspective. Looking at the ornate sarcophagus, the burial rites and brains pulled through noses, the intricate prayers and indelible markings carved into stone, I realised that the desire to defy death and transfer existence into something more permanent is perhaps the most truly human of all our needs.
There is no era in British history quite so preoccupied with death as the Victorians. They made it into an art form known for its elaborate and theatrical displays of grief. These outward displays of innermost mourning became known, among other things, as ‘memento mori’. Latin for ‘remember you must die’.
Both etiquette and contemporary fashion required substantial periods of public bereavement. This included the adorning of jet-black clothing, veils and jewellery, such as lockets and rings containing locks of the deceased’s hair. Artwork and sculptures were filled with morbid motifs and symbols, while the growing popularity of photography led to the macabre practice of death portraiture.
It seems that while the world has changed, our need for death ritual has not. The only thing standing between my grief and that the past is that now we have technology to better capture it. Human minds are flimsy at best. We forget menial tasks and muddy our memories with false recollections. The voices and faces of our loved ones fades. We forget the sound of their laughter. This is the tragedy of time.
Technology, however, gives us a chance to reclaim what is lost.
Digital ash in a digital urn
Pete’s talk pushed me towards a number of philosophical questions. What constitutes a life? What are the limits of selfhood? And where is that unique little nugget, call it soul or spirit, that makes a human a human, located in the body? Just where does it reside?
Equally, while the delaying of absolute death is alluring, what are the existential ramifications of transferring thoughts into machines? What percentage of our personalities need to be poured in for it to become us? These questions are an impossibility, really. After centuries of speculation, it’s clear that humanity is not something that can be quantified or rationalised.
As an existentialist with little or no hope of an afterlife, I’m both enthralled and repulsed by digital immortality. We see it already; holograms of famous musicians doomed to perform for all of eternity. Death is what powers human existence. Memento mori — remember you must die — this is the thought that bites at our ankles. It’s what causes that burning in our stomachs: that absolute need to be seen, to create, to make something of this life. It’s the reason we build skyscrapers and emblazon our names upon them. It’s what pulled us out of the primordial soup and into the light. It pushes us to pass on our genes. To live on for just that little while longer.
But this is the philosopher speaking. The human in me feels very different. I think about how when my grandfather died, my grandmother didn’t change their answering machine message for weeks. I heard a story once about a woman who still visits embankment station every day to hear her husband’s voice speak from the grave: “mind the gap.”
I myself am the family historian. I am the collector of stories and hoarder of memories. I sit at dinner over red wine and pick my grandmother’s brain clean. I want to hear every story and store them somewhere permanent, somewhere fixed. My Shetlandic ancestry draws me towards the word sennachie, Scottish for ‘a professional storyteller of family genealogy, history and legend.’ I play this part in my family, only I use a journal and not small robot called Bo.
I guess the point I am trying and failing to make is that it’s easy to pick apart the ethical implications of a robot injected with a dose of humanity. It’s understandable to have that kneejerk reaction of fear and suspicion when confronted with the unknown. Humans have been arguing over what constitutes a good afterlife since time immemorial and we still have centuries of bickering to go.
But when you’re grappling with the knowledge of a sentient gone silent, when you’re stood staring down at the inevitable and across that impossible and endless sea — can we really blame people for seizing just one more moment? And when our time comes, would we not want the same?
This article is the first in two-part series on artificial intelligence, inspired by the recent Interact London conference. Read part two: How I learned to stop worrying and love AI.