MADRID — The 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..."
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