LA RAZON

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 The Knight 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.

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Society

Dutch Cities Have Been Secretly Probing Mosques Since 2013

Revelations of a nationally funded clandestine operation within 10 municipalities in the Netherlands to keep tabs on mosques and Muslim organizations after a rise in radicalization eight years ago.

The Nasser mosque in Veenendaal, one of the mosques reportedly surveilled

Meike Eijsberg

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.


The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Photo of people standing on prayer mats inside a Dutch mosque

Praying inside a Dutch mosque.

Hollandse-Hoogte/ZUMA

Broken trust in Islamic community

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talk to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

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