December 30, 2007

Digital Immortality

A change of job – or affiliation – is of course no headline news in today's vibrant economy, but even this otherwise simple event opened my eyes to a new way of looking at the reality of departure and absence !

A mail from an erstwhile colleague mentioned that the reality of my departure has become evident, not so much because of my physical absence from my place of work, but because email – on which I was on the cc: list – was bouncing back to the sender ! Which set me thinking ... what if my company had graciously allowed my email ID to exist ( in total violation of all corporate procedures) ... would it have meant that a lot of people would not have known that I had left ? And what if my erstwhile secretary had continued to respond to these mails .. in the manner that she knew that I would have ? In the globalised mega-corporation – which is anyway quite faceless – would anyone, other than a close group of friends, have known that I was no more associated with the company ?

But let us carry this analogy to a new level ...

Email is just one of our digital identities. Many of us have a presence in the blogsphere, in social networking sites like Orkut, Facebook and professional networks like Linkedin. Most of these identities have a real physical image associated with them but more often than not these images are stylised logos or representations of what the identity owner would like to be seen as. So it is not too difficult to replace the physical identity owner with a new owner and carry on with the digital identity without anyone ELSE being aware of this change.

When this is unintentional and non-voluntary, it is called identity theft and many victims of cyber fraud would have faced the unpleasant consequences of such actions but even if we leave out malafide behaviour, there is no difficulty in visualising this transfer of digital identity from one physical entity to another.

In fact things like snail mail to “Letters to the Editor”, or “The Secretary” or any other 'position' – as opposed to an individual – that are read by and responded to by the current encumbent of a position are in fact no different.

The only difference is in today's digital world, the digital identity is so intimately tied to the physical entity – much more so than people to designations, as in the past – that it is very difficult for us differentiate one from another : and the interesting part is that since this is difficult, we could leverage this difficulty, to create the illusion of immortality for the physical identity.

It is not immortality, but the illusion of immortality.

Even if I were to stop writing this blog but would get someone else to do it on my behalf, it is extremely likely that a majority of readers would not know the difference. And so in a sense, my current digital identity is, or can be, immortal.

This digital immortality is even more pronounced in the area of virtual worlds like Second Life where my avatar – along with its virtual possessions like land, clothes, toys, relationships and what not – could continue to operate, even if I am not there “behind” it. All that it would need is someone else who knows the password to access – and operate – my avatar.

Which again means that even though Prithwis Mukerjee is well and truly mortal, Calcutta Cyclone could be truly immortal as long as SecondLife exists !!

But do we really need another human being to “operate” my avatar on my behalf ? What if I could create a software program – a 'bot' – that would operate my avatar on behalf of any human being : me or my chosen successor ?

Writing such a program is not easy. Infact if the program has to succeed and “fool” others, it must have a level of artificial intelligence that would allow it to pass the Turing Test ... and this is not possible as yet ( and in fact may never be !!) But what is certainly possible today is to have someone else – another human being – to act on my behalf and then we have genuine Digital Immortality.

Alastair Reynolds, the writer of science fiction novels like Revelation Space, has taken this concept to the next level because he is unfettered by the impossibility, or difficulty, of having a software program pass the Turing Test. In his novels, people may die but their 'soul' lives on as a combination of a software program and holographic image.

We may not be there as yet but our version of Digital Immortality could open up intriguing possibilities as well.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is back to the 'are we real' concept ...what if we (in RL) are nothing more than illusions controlled by a bot of somebody long gone!! Dibooos Coffey!