Digital immortality: Pardon the pun, but when will it come to life?
In the course of exploring future technology trends for Atos, I have recently been reading up on the possibility of digital immortality. Once the province of science fiction (in movies like Transcendence and Her, or TV series like Westworld and Altered Carbon), new technological developments are bringing it ever closer.
It's an unusual topic that many people understandably feel conflicted about. When it comes up in conversation, people’s body language often indicates some discomfort or unease with the concept. Nevertheless, many futurists and tech forecasters (including me) believe that it will eventually happen, making it a topic that merits some discussion, Regardless of where you come down on the moral or ethical concerns, digital immortality may actually be closer than we realize.
However, before we go too far, let’s first define exactly what digital immortality is.
Basically, it means preserving a person's consciousness or some aspects of their identity in a digital form beyond their physical death. The concept involves uploading a person's mind or consciousness onto a computer or network, where it could potentially exist indefinitely.
Some proponents of digital immortality believe this technology could eventually allow people to continue communicating, learning and contributing to society long after their physical body has passed away. That said, it is still largely a theoretical concept, and there is no evidence to suggest that it is currently possible to achieve true digital immortality.
However, my instinct as a tech expert is to break this problem up into its fundamental components — in order to assess the feasibility of each step required to get there. There are four generally agreed-upon technological hurdles that must be overcome in order to make this a reality:
- Uploading consciousness: The idea that a person's consciousness or some aspect of their identity could be transferred to a digital platform and preserved beyond their physical death.
- Preservation of personal data: The long-term storage of a person's thoughts, memories and personality traits in a digital format in a data center.
- Artificial intelligence: The development of advanced artificial intelligence that could replicate a person's thought processes and behavior patterns, allowing them to exist digitally.
- Speech-to-Speech: A function capable of sampling a human's voice, then creating a digital model capable of synthesizing a convincing reproduction of that individual’s speech.
To put this list into perspective, items #2, #3 and #4 are achievable today. We just need to crack #1.
In January of 2023, Microsoft researchers announced a new text-to-speech AI model called VALL-E that can closely simulate a person's voice using nothing more than a three-second audio sample.
In recent years, we have also seen advancements in brain-computer interface (BCI) products that are capable of reading the brain to help control the world around us. Given these innovations, I believe it will be a relatively short technological leap before we can use the same principles to digitize memories.
Aside from achieving actual immortality or digital self-preservation, this truly is the next best thing. Imagine being able to speak with your deceased relatives. It’s here that many readers may turn from interest to revulsion, but this is perhaps the single most compelling (and marketable) aspect of the technology. I would give an arm and a leg to get advice from my grandfather, and I’m sure that countless others would do the same.
Some services may offer the first stepping stones towards this idea, but I don’t believe we can truly call it Digital Immortality just yet. For example, a company called Deepbrain AI uses digital video capture and deep learning technology to create convincing digital avatars of celebrities, politicians, newscasters and sports stars.
They are now starting to offer a service called re;memory that captures video and audio of any individual, enabling relatives and family members to talk to and interact with loved ones after their death.
Although these developments may seem like very small steps towards a seemingly insurmountable task, we often hear iron-clad pronouncements that one event or another will never take place during our lifetimes. From personal experience, here are just a few bold predictions that have proven to be false:
- Virtualization will never become mainstream
- Large enterprises will never move fully to the cloud
- My sister-in-law would NEVER allow an Amazon Alexa device in her house
- Lionel Messi would never leave the European football leagues to play in America
Looking back, it seems clear to me that if there is a strong use case and the desired result is not too far out of reach, things inevitably happen. When it comes to digital immortality, we still have a fair distance to go, but the pace of innovation is accelerating every day. I believe we will cross a threshold in the not-so-distant future that will breathe life into this exciting new technology.