Digital Eternity Is Just Around the Corner

As these technologies develop and become more accessible, they will increasingly be used in combination, creating “intelligent avatars” of ourselves that continue to “live” long after we have died. We are seeing the beginnings of this with the metaverse company Somnium Space, whose Live Forever mode allows users to create “digital clones” built from data they have stored while alive, including conversational style, gaits, and even facial expressions. 

This sense of immortality may be reassuring, but there is a catch. AI avatars will rely on us feeding their algorithms a huge amount of personal data, accumulated through the course of our lives. If we want our digital selves to live on, this is the exchange we must accept: that the unfiltered beliefs and opinions we express today may not only be archived, but consequently used to build these posthumous personae. In other words, we can have a voice in the afterlife, but we cannot be certain about what it may say. This will force us to reconsider how our behaviors today might influence digital versions of ourselves set to outlive us. Faced with this prospect of virtual immortality, 2023 will be the year we broaden our definition of what it means to live forever, a moral question that will fundamentally change how we live our day-to-day lives, but also what it means to be immortal. 

Notice how the quotes around “live” in the first paragraph disappear in the second. Notice also — this is universal in such discourse — the unexamined “we”: “2023 will be the year we broaden our definition of what it means to live forever.” Depends on who “we” are, I think. I for one am not interested in broadening my definition of what means to live forever in such a way that it isn’t living and doesn’t last forever. But you be you! 

There’s a powerful passage from C. S. Lewis’s autobiography Surprised by Joy

I had recently come to know an old, dirty, gabbling, tragic, Irish parson who had long since lost his faith but retained his living. By the time I met him his only interest was the search for evidence of “human survival.” On this he read and talked incessantly, and, having a highly critical mind, could never satisfy himself. What was especially shocking was that the ravenous desire for personal immortality co-existed in him with (apparently) a total indifference to all that could, on a sane view, make immortality desirable. He was not seeking the Beatific Vision and did not even believe in God. He was not hoping for more time in which to purge and improve his own personality. He was not dreaming of reunion with dead friends or lovers; I never heard him speak with affection of anybody. All he wanted was the assurance that something he could call “himself” would, on almost any terms, last longer than his bodily life. 

Whenever I read about someone who sees a technological route to immortality I think about this “ravenous desire for personal immortality” combined with “a total indifference to all that could, on a sane view, make immortality desirable.” So you want a digital imitation of yourself to live on after you die. But why