Between Facebook and the cloud, it’s realistic to expect that thousands of photos and videos of us will exist forever. Future generations will have a better window into the everyday lives of millennials than humans have had for any generation in history.
That change is dramatic, but could be just the beginning of a revolution in remembrance, given the world sketched out by Martine Rothblatt in her new book, “Virtually Human: The Promise and the Peril of Digital Immortality.”
The former Sirius Satellite Radio chief executive and current chief executive at United Therapeutics offers a provocative look at mindclones, which are essentially digital clones of ourselves. They are programmed with our thoughts, feelings, attitudes and preferences. They will begin as advice-offering assistants on our digital devices, before eventually joining the physical world, capable of walking, laughing and sitting next to us on the couch.
Often older generations miss out on the major life events of their grandchildren. But what if a 3D-printed version of your grandmother could live forever, offering wisdom to a grandchild considering marriage or whether to attend grad school?
Things could get weird when mindclones starting marrying one another, pursuing voting rights and trying to have children, all of which Rothblatt anticipates.
Rothblatt expects mindclones to be a mainstream technology. She says the creepiness factor will wear off as we realize their many values. Here’s a transcript of my conversation with Rothblatt about the potential and drawbacks of our digital selves living forever. It has been edited lightly for clarity and length:
You believe it’s pretty much a guarantee that mindclones are going to end up in a physical form that’s indistinguishable from a biological human?
I think that will take a lot longer. I think you’re talking about the end of the 21st century. For mindclones to exist that are indistinguishable from a human on a screen? As a virtual presence? You’re talking about the next 10 to 20 years.
Do you see new norms arising where, hypothetically, a young parent dies fairly early and a mindclone is used to fill the gap and play the role of a mother or father?
Totally, totally. It’s amazing, almost all technological invention began with efforts to solve medical problems. For example, the scanner that we all take for granted was invented by Ray Kurzweil as a way for blind people to read without Braille. Alexander Graham Bell, when he generated the telephone, was working on a device for the deaf. The BINA48 began with efforts to help paraplegics. I definitely do believe the first hiccups of mindclones will be as replacements for people who were lost in tragic medical or trauma accidents.
So the potential to affect lives could be huge.
Even me at my age, if I could have a mindclone of my grandparents, I love them and they have all this amazing wisdom. They were born in Europe and emigrated here. If I could have the chance to have my grandchildren interact with my grandparents that would be priceless. Priceless!
What kind of cultural implications do you think that will have?
I actually think that traditions will grow stronger because of the concept of intergenerational equity, and what happens is in the old days people lived when nothing changed from generation to generation, and people lived in the same spot, there was a kind of — without mindclones — passage of people’s minds through the generations. It occurred just because nothing changed.
Then came the Industrial Revolution, we were scatter-shotted throughout the world in different localities. There’s this sociological concept of anomie, and people sort of disconnected from each other, and were somewhat lonely. I think that this underlies some of the dissatisfaction in society today. I think mindclones will bring us back to the sense of connectedness to the past and the future and to the Earth.
A lot of new technologies struggle with the creepiness factor, will people grow comfortable with it and accept it. Can mindclones overcome this?
There’s this chart in the book called the social acceptance of weirdness chart.
There’s no doubt when something is strange or different, it’s weird or creepy to people. Whether we ever grow accustomed to it depends on whether the utility of new phenomena outweighs its strangeness or weirdness or creepiness.
To give an example, something like when people sacrifice animals, I think that’s weird, that’s creepy. I’ve always felt that way and am not likely to change because I don’t see the utility associated with it. People sharing a lot of intimate details of themselves in social media, it’s weird. Sometimes it’s creepy. However, social media is so useful that I think everybody has grown accustomed to it and accepts that social media is here to stay despite its invasiveness into our privacy.
For Google Glass, as of this moment, most people feel it’s weird, however the apps are just beginning. Once those apps get much more advanced and other types of wearable computing apps get advanced, like you see with the iWatch coming out from Apple, I think the utility of this wearable computing outweighs its weirdness, and people will say, “Okay, it’s not so weird. It’s actually useful. I’m used to it.”
Mindclones is the same thing. At first, people will think it’s weird, it’s scary, but the utility of mindclones will be so huge that it will become accepted.
Could you see a company — I’m thinking of something like Apple and Steve Jobs — using a mindclone to keep a leader in place after their biological death?
I think the answer is yes. It would be if the leader himself or herself, who had a mindclone, who simply insists that they do not die. You saw a little bit of this in a Hollywood dystopic sense in “Transcendence.” This guy said, “I didn’t die,” but nobody really believed him. You can imagine more normal scenarios where a person says, “I’m not dead. I’ve lost my body but I’m still here.” And people will begin to believe him or her and people will begin to take instructions from people like that as their boss.
Just like people have gotten used to working remotely when most of their interaction is on video screens, people will get used to it. They’ll say, “Yeah, my boss is a virtual person, but she’s still a person.”
What kind of implications will we see as mindclones interact with one another?
For the mindclone to really be a person, it’s going to have its own free will, it’s own autonomy, it’s own desires. Getting it to a situation where a biological body is gone and now there’s just a mindclone of a person.
Let’s say the Steve Jobs mindclone meets the [Hewlett-Packard chief executive] Meg Whitman mindclone. Her body has gone and she’s continuing on as a mindclone. They fall in love. People fall in love, mindclones are going to fall in love. Mindclones are just people without bodies. Once the mindclones fall in love, they are going to get married. That’s what people do.
Sometimes mindclones want to procreate just like people want to procreate. So now things get a little bit complicated. One way you could create a family would be to adopt somebody. Of course people will say, “Well, it is cruel to the child to be adopted by two mindclones. The child won’t even have a mom to hug.” But people raise those same kinds of issues about blind people adopting sighted children, deaf people adopting hearing children. Those children have grown up to be perfectly happy. I think we just have to check ourselves from saying why virtual people could not adopt a child. They can be more present than a lot of parents are today, who are always working.
What are the downsides of mindclones for us to be concerned about?
I think one of the perils is there will be — just like there are evil people — there will then be evil mindclones. Right now we spend a lot of time and energy tracking down evil people, so we’re going to have to spend time and energy tracking down evil mindclones. That’s a negative. But the problem is it’s inevitable and the only worse thing than having evil mindclones outnumber good mindclones is just having evil mindclones. Like I say in book, if evolution is outlawed, then only outlaws will evolve.
The peril of the evil mindclone is not going to go away. If we just bury our heads in the sand, we’re going to end up being the on short end of the evil mindclone. The best solution for us is to embrace good and positive mindclones and ultimately it will take a mindclone to catch a mindclone.