Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Science fiction writer and mathematician Rudy Rucker has proposed a low-cost alternative to biological immortality: an interactive, portable neural net-based computer capable of imitating its owner's personality and artificially duplicating his or her memories. Rucker describes the device as a sort of attentive Palm Pilot that asks its user questions about every conceivable topic, establishing a rudimentary neural "map" as the interview progresses (a process that may last years) . In essence, the device acts as an autobiographical ghost-writer and companion.

But as fun -- or annoying -- as working with such a device may be, its purpose is far from trivial. Its ultimate job is to replace you. When you die, the device will have gathered a massive cross-referenced database that can be used to conjure up an ersatz version of your deceased self. Presumably your ancestors may enjoy "your" company, or future historians might use your duplicate to conduct research. Copies of the quasi-intelligent replica could be made as easily as we now duplicate images and sound files.

Rudy Rucker

A collector's market may arise, with the best and brightest recorded personalities achieving virtual superstardom. Entirely fictional personalities could be culled from promising recordings. Or a virgin device might be tutored by two or more recordings, resulting in an interesting "splice." Bandwidth is the only limit; unlike a device absorbing a human's persona, "imprinted" devices could communicate among themselves digitally, spared cumbersome, time-consuming human speech.

Most would agree that this isn't true immortality, but a novel imitation. But Rucker sees such technology as a stepping stone to an actual uploaded human psyche. If humans choose to upload themselves into a computer substrate prior to biological death ("deanimation"), a few years of vigorous dialogue with a "personality recorder" would help simulate the user's own neural "system architecture." This map, as crude as it may be compared to the complexity of an actual human brain, could serve as the basic scaffolding for an authetic human upload, ensuring that the final product is as indistinguishable from the original as technically possible.

So where are these things now? Interactive, infinitely customizable electronic devices are ubiquitous in the form of PDAs, cellphones, laptops, digital cameras, and combinations thereof. Rucker's fictional invention would likely be a sure seller, but two factors keep it from becoming viable: memory and intelligence. The first problem -- constructing a device with the staggering amount of RAM needed to soak up its owners' personality -- is probably surmountable. But enabling the device with the conversational savvy to allow for competent "interrogation" is another matter.

But perhaps we're getting closer than we know to realizing Rucker's speculative stab at immortality. DARPA (the folks who brought us the Internet) recently unveiled a project called "Lifelog," which diligently tracks human respiration, brain rhythm, speech, and movement, allowing future scientists (in theory) to create consummately life-like simulations of day-to-day activity.

And the blogging phenomenon shouldn't be discounted either. If a Net-based artificial intelligence is spawned in the next 20-30 years, it may elect to trawl the Web, greedily digesting any written material in its path. Blogs -- from the explicitly personal to the more technically oriented -- may provide a newborn AI with a broad-spectrum glimpse of the human ordeal. A globally networked AI might be a kind of amorphous, innately shizophrenic entity, adopting and modifying personality elements to suit its whim.

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