Digital Immortality: Do we really need it?

Digital Immortality: Do we really need it? Yulan Guan, School of Management Fudan runner-up in the 2022 CoBS student CSR article competition, explores the technical and ethical arguments in the AI and immortality issue, and reflects on the lessons to be learnt from Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

Yulan Guan, School of Management Fudan runner-up in the 2022 CoBS student CSR article competition, explores the technical and ethical arguments in the AI and immortality issue, and reflects on the lessons to be learnt from Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

Digital Immortality: Do we really need it? by Yulan Guan.

Imagine a world in which your mind could live forever. Uploading and archiving your mind to create a digital agent which is integrated with AI technology. And the digital agent can behave and think just like you do.

Researchers believe that this kind of digital immortality will be a feature of the near future (Kurzweil, 2006). Human beings’ wish to be immortal probably started a long time ago, whether in eastern or western cultures. 2,200 years ago, Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of the Qin dynasty in Chinese history, was desperately obsessed with seeking an elixir which would have let him live forever. The legendary King Arthur from British culture sought the Holy Grail to pursue his eternal youth. Nowadays, in a modern society in which digital immortality is offered by AI technology, the question begs: shall we take it or not?

The history of Artificial Intelligence

The term “Artificial Intelligence” was selected by Dr. John McCarthy to name his research field at the Dartmouth conference of 1956, regarded as the birth of AI (Buchanan, 2005). The assertion from that conference that “every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it” (McCarthy, 1955: 13) opened the first generation of general AI research.

Researchers at that time were optimistic about developing in just a few decades a machine with human intelligence. It was thought that HAL 9000 from the famous science fiction and the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, a machine with human intelligence or even exceeding human intelligence, could be created by the year of 2001.

However, it turned out that they underestimated the difficulties in making things happen. The field of study then transformed into narrow AI research without the intention of making machines with cognitive abilities, and in the 1990s achieved big commercial success across industry by improving processes and increasing efficiency.

Nowadays, the general AI research wave seems to be making a comeback with technologies like big data, deep learning, and neural network paving the way. Topics such as the artificial brain, brain simulation, and mind uploading are increasingly discussed. And countries and companies are putting a lot of money to launch projects in the field.

The US launched the Brain Initiative and the EU the Human Brain Project both in 2013, followed by Japan’s Brain/MINDS Project in 2014. The China Brain Project launched in 2018, targets research into the neural basis of cognitive functions and driving AI through computer simulation.

A US company called LIFENAUT allows people to upload their personal data from all kinds of sources in order to create a digital back-up of their mind. LIFENAUT’s so-called mind uploading experiment is to test whether a software-based mind appears to have a consciousness that is equivalent to that of its brain-based person predecessor (Rothblatt, 2012: 141). If the hypothesis is validated, it will be considered as the digital immortality of human beings.

Obviously, AI technology has brought lots of technical and economic benefits, but along with it come a plethora of legal, social and ethical issues, especially when AI is applied to human immortality.

Immortality: Questions for the whole society

Immortality: Questions for society. Digital Immortality: Do we really need it? Yulan Guan, School of Management Fudan runner-up in the 2022 CoBS student CSR article competition, explores the technical and ethical arguments in the AI and immortality issue, and reflects on the lessons to be learnt from Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

Can digital immortality be regarded as one human right requirement to be explicitly safeguarded and included in a Universal Declaration of Human Rights? And can the right to the pursuit of immortality be considered law by countries in the same way as the right to the pursuit of Happiness in the United States Declaration of Independence?

Maybe the answer is no. Based on current human knowledge, the truth is that every human being dies. For thousands of years, with the development of technology, human lifespan has greatly extended. But for technology to make people live forever, no matter what form of human immortality, means totally changing the course of nature and cannot be regarded as an endowed human right.

Digital immortality achieved through AI technology will trigger subsequent social and ethical problems. Data privacy, data control and misuse, data bias and discrimination are issues that have already occurred and which have led to legislation and regulation. Should digital immortals be treated like human beings and granted social identities? Who will own personal data after death – the heir or the AI company? People with power and wealth swarming into countries allowing digital immortality may result in social instability. These questions are related to ethics and the constitution of modern societies. And the key solutions should be on a governance level.

  • First, digital immortality should be defined explicitly and the boundary of AI applications well-defined. Second, digital immortality should be considered in a broader context as one part of building a community with a shared future for mankind.
  • Governance should be planned both nationally and internationally.
  • Third, legislation and regulation should be developed to make AI technology work for good in a society, where technologies bring universal benefits to every person fairly.
  • Last, legislation and regulation should be updated with the emergence and development of every new technology, including changes in moral preference.

Immortality: Questions for the individual

Digital Immortality: Do we really need it? Yulan Guan, School of Management Fudan runner-up in the 2022 CoBS student CSR article competition, explores the technical and ethical arguments in the AI and immortality issue, and reflects on the lessons to be learnt from Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

Can AI substitute human intelligence? Will your digital immortal truthfully reflect the real you? Digital immortality may result in human beings relying too much on AI and ignoring the development of human potential. This is a great threat to human intelligence and a generator of harm to the development of civilized society. Generally, a human being only exploits less than 10% of his or her total intellectual capability.

There are very few people in history like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, who developed more of their potential during the High Renaissance and created great works driving civilization. As a famous painter, Leonardo was also dubbed a Master of Water and master of topographic anatomy. During his life in Milan, he listed a total of 36 his talents in a resume to apply a job for Sforza, including science, technology, medicine, architecture, music and painting. Leonardo achieved these talents by curiosity, observation, and experiment – factors that have been neglected by modern human beings and prove difficult for digital immortals to acquire or simulate.

The greatness of Michelangelo derived from the philosophy presented by his masterpieces, which can make people think about life. He sculpted one of his best-known works the Pieta at the age of 23. After being famous early, competing with elder contemporary Leonardo da Vinci, and facing death, Michelangelo gained more and more thoughts and insights on life and started the journey of going beyond himself at the age of 65. He sculpted another three works for the Pieta until the end of his life at the age of 88, showing his understanding and thinking about life and death.

There is reason to doubt that digital immortals could not reflect Michelangelo because digital immortals will not die. AI cannot substitute human intelligence. Its role should be a supplement and enhancement of it.

Efficiency and fairness in society

The emergence of new technologies is always fascinating and exciting. New technology is a driving power for improving social efficiency. We should embrace new technology all the time while being cautious and careful with its application. Policymakers play crucial roles in designing related governance mechanisms to secure a “good AI society” (Cath, 2017).

For the time being, we don’t know when the singularity will come. It may be near or far away. However, the social and ethical consequences of digital immortality should be taken into consideration right now. What we know for sure is that not every human being will achieve digital immortality. Death may be the fairest procedure for mankind in all societies.

Yulan Guan

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