When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

Germany

Making Sense Of The Movement Toward Digital Immortality

With the advancement of AI technology, certain aspects of our individual being may survive beyond the grave. Will we live forever, in other words, just as some artists already do?

Our conscience, reconverted into AI?
Our conscience, reconverted into AI?
Antonio Fernández Vicente

-Essay-

MADRIDThe Three Ages of Man and Death, by the 16th century German painter Hans Baldung, is a portrait of the ravages of aging. In it, a female skeleton holds an hourglass to indicate our inexorable fate, while above, to the right of the figures, a cross points toward the heavens as our only possible hope after death.

The painting, housed in Madrid's Prado museum, is a good reminder that religion was where we long turned for consolation concerning fatality. But today, technology may be usurping that space. And by 2030, it may perpetuate our lives artificially.

This is what the artificial intelligence (AI) pioneer and futurist Ray Kurzweil terms "singularity," a concept that is depicted in science fiction as either simulation of human conduct or replication of people who have died.

The Three Ages of Man and Death by Hans Baldung — Wikipedia

The computerization of all our digital data would effectively come to constitute a decoupling of what we are — our identity — from biological chains. In this digital transcendence, our consciousness would outlive our body or rather "inhabit" or survive in a machine.

An embryonic version of all this is the Eternime project, a startup founded by MIT fellow Marius Ursache that saves people's stories, thoughts and memories forever, and allows them to create avatars that can interact with others, or even themselves, through their digital fingerprints.

An episode of the science fiction series Black Mirror, entitled Be Right Back, depicted immortality in those terms. Depending on the data available on a person, the algorithm can create and relive predictable behaviors. Patterns identified through data analyses would allow construction of intelligence systems superior to the Turing Test. People might even be replicated.

In some ways this form of transcendence is the same one poet and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno attributed to writing. The writer leaves his or her imprint for posterity, and his readers will encounter a part of the departed writer. "In my absence, this will be a memento of what I was," he wrote. Or it can be a painting, like Salvador Dalí"s TheKnight of Death.

The computerization of all our digital data would effectively come to constitute a decoupling of what we are — our identity — from biological chains.

The novelty with digital perpetuation is that our bequest will not be static, like a picture, photograph or lines written in a memoir. It will be our conscience, reconverted into AI, able to interact and learn over time and adapt to new situations, through what is termed machine learning and deep learning.

All technology purports to be the solution to a problem, and death is certainly a problem. But it's also one of our fundamental taboos, the unmentionable. It constitutes a break with our idyllic view of life, especially in a time when happiness seems to have become a moral (and commercial) obligation. Death, therefore, must be removed from this model life plan.

El cavaller de la mort — Photo: Fundació Gala - Salvador Dalí

The cultural historian Philippe Ariès duly warned that from a familiar conception of death, we have moved toward an inability to accept the fact that we are finite. We have moved from death as an inevitable and quotidian part of our lives, and an experience to be lived like any other, to death as a curse. It must be systematically hidden from our view because it reminds us in spite of our efforts, that we are limited beings.

We fear death to the point of leaving the dying in solitude, as the sociologist Norbert Elias pointed out in his last years of his life. The dreams of transhumanist perfection and prolonged existence after our biological death thus clash with the notion of a limit. It is the limit that defines us and distinguishes us from others.

But would life without limits make sense? Is conscience stretched through computation not a simulation rather than an authentic prolongation of our being? Again, fiction helps us understand it.

All technology purports to be the solution to a problem, and death is certainly a problem.

The Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges observed in his short story The Immortal that in winning eternal life, the race of tired immortals comes to see the infinite value of all that is limited, and the irredeemable nature of a single life. Humans, he wrote, merit pity for their "ghostly" condition and their inevitable disappearance, "like the face of every dream."

Mario de Andrade, the Brazilian writer, offered his own take on the mortality question. "We have two lives," he wrote in his poem My Soul is in a Hurry. "And the second one begins when you realize you have but one..."

What if that life were eternal? For Borges, Baldung, Unamuno, Dalí and Andrade — thanks to their immortal writings and paintings — it already is.

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.

Society

Parenthood And The Pressure Of Always Having To Be Doing Better

As a father myself, I'm now better able to understand the pressures my own dad faced. It's helped me face my own internal demands to constantly be more productive and do better.

Photo of a father with a son on his shoulders

Father and son in the streets of Madrid, Spain

Ignacio Pereyra*

-Essay-

When I was a child — I must have been around eight or so — whenever we headed with my mom and grandma to my aunt's country house in Don Torcuato, outside of Buenos Aires, there was the joy of summer plans. Spending the day outdoors, playing soccer in the field, being in the swimming pool and eating delicious food.

But when I focus on the moment, something like a painful thorn appears in the background: from the back window of the car I see my dad standing on the sidewalk waving us goodbye. Sometimes he would stay at home. “I have to work” was the line he used.

Maybe one of my older siblings would also stay behind with him, but I'm sure there were no children left around because we were all enthusiastic about going to my aunt’s. For a long time in his life, for my old man, those summer days must have been the closest he came to being alone, in silence (which he liked so much) and in calm, considering that he was the father of seven. But I can only see this and say it out loud today.

Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

Keep reading...Show less

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.

The latest