Digital Ghosts don’t need Virtual Simulations

If we one day perfect the process of digitizing human brain and uploading it into some sort of globe spanning datasphere network, no one will ever have to die again. Yes, there will still be unfortunate accidents and suicides, but no one will die out of old age. By that time our lifespans will probably be much longer thanks to advances in medicine and nutrition so it is hard to tell how long will people live. However, I assume that once you reach a certain age (the “over the hill” age – whatever that may be for you) you will make a decision to migrate your consciousness online. So you will buy a share in some data center (or couple of them for redundancy) and upload yourself into the globe spanning network.

A lot of people who do this will probably wish to retain their biological bodies for a little while – or perhaps swap them for younger and healthier copies. This way they could keep in touch with their family and watch their grandchildren grow up. Those who will not be able to afford a biological body might rent out an android, or just visit their family via holographic projection. Other will just call a lot.

I assume that the phrase “grandpa has passed away” is going to have a whole new meaning in the future. It won’t mean that grandpa died. It will merely mean that when he visits he will look different or be a hologram from now on.

It will be an interesting world to live in. Imagine a place where you could get in touch with your grand-grand-grand father if you wanted to. You could go back many generations and talk to your ancestors who have left this world long time ago, and moved on. That is, if they will actually want to talk to you, and that you know how to contact them.

I imagine that there will usually come a time when a virtual personality will get bored with checking in with the mortal world. After their children and grand children all “pass away” and join them as digital ghosts in the datasphere they will have less and less reason to dabble in the affairs of mortals. In fact, I suspect that they will eventually consider mortals to be slow and boring. Let’s face it – they sleep half of their life, they can’t process information as fast as an electronic persona and they have very little practical knowledge or life experience compared to someone who has lived few hundred years. Of course they are valuable assets – someone has to reproduce and maintain the vast infrastructure of the datasphere. But a digitized persons “real life” will be happening online. It’s there where it will be interacting with other virtual people, conversing with god-like AI intellects and engaging in their scholarly pursuits.

One thing which always bothered me about depictions of this virtual ecosystem that will one day be home to millions disembodied human souls was that a lot of people imagine it like a matrix style simulation. I’m sure that there will exist super-realistic simulations that many people will partake in. But they will be more like tourist attractions. People will go there for entertainment – whenever they will want to have a good time they will dust off their “body from a fashion magazine with my face on it” avatar go to a luxurious beachfront resort sim to pretend that they are getting drunk and have sex with other beautiful people. Or have a medieval adventure. Or fly a spaceship – whatever strikes their fancy. But I imagine their daily lives will not be spent in a simulation.

In fact, I think that actually assuming an avatar inside of a sim would actually interfere with efficient communication and actually doing their work. It is fun to imagine that bunch of digitized directors would all meet in a virtual boardroom and sit around a big table while discussing their business plans and what not. This is how TV shows and movies usually depict such virtual meetings. But imagine how inefficient and limiting this would feel for bodiless online personalities. They would actually have to take turns, put their thoughts into words and vocalize them.

I always imagined that digital personalities would leverage their condition to communicate much more efficiently than we do. Instead of actually speaking they would exchange data squirts which would contain their message with embedded supporting data such images, videos, book references and etc. It would work more like telepathy – where the message would actually carry the meaning of your message across – it would be what you intended to say, rather than what you ended up saying. The rate of this data exchange would only be limited by bandwidth and ability to process this information. So a high level board meting could for example take 5-10 minutes during which the online persona’s engage with rapid fire data exchange rather than drawn out 2 hour simulation where they take turns, and show power point slides to each other.

Electronic ghosts won’t need virtual simulations. They won’t need to build virtual cities because there will be no need for them. They won’t have to sleep or eat so they will have no reason to actually own a bedroom or a kitchen – other than to occasionally have some fun cooking pretend food, or spending a romantic evening having simulated sex with another ghost. They won’t even need to have a permanent avatar or a face – these things will be basically like interchangeable, and only used when entering a simulation of some sort. In it’s normal state, a digitized person will simply be a shapeless formless electronic awareness.

Why would they need bodies anyway? It’s not like they will have to go places, right? When you are online do you actually need to go somewhere to get your data? No, you can sit at your computer in your underwear and do research, participate in serious ground breaking discussions or correspond with your business clients. If you had no body, it would work the same way – only you would be permanently online and you would be able to process more data, remember things better and think faster than any mortal human could. There will be no reason for you to actually assume an appearance of any sort unless you actually want to go and experience something in a virtual simulation.

Of course I’m sure that new arrivals will probably still be attached to their body image, and they may initially try to live in some online simulations. There will probably be whole communities for newly digitized people. They will probably try to live their life the way they initially lived it in the real world, and will have their own house or apartment where their family will be able to visit them.

But after many years they will likely get bored of such existence and will move on. As they will grow more detached from the real world they will become more interested in the affairs of the web entities and AI’s. They will discover a whole new sphere of interests that lies beyond the simulated life. Most of them will figure out that it is probably easier to just exist as a digital consciousness outside these sims where you can actually concentrate on important things without being distracted by the simulated environment. Really old and smart ghosts will probably try to increase their processing power and try to go up on the trophosopic scale and become more like the post singularity AI archilects.

Of course I might be completely wrong about this. Or perhaps digitizing human brain will be impossible. Still, it is fun to speculate about these things.

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9 Responses to Digital Ghosts don’t need Virtual Simulations

  1. James Heaver UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I wonder about the digital divide this will bring.

    Obviously this technology will only be affordable to super-wealthy westerners and will filter down very slowly. It would be a long time before Africa would start digitising. Is this likely to lead to wars where Africans countries try to destroy these data centres? This could either be ideological, or perhaps in protest at this inherant unfairness.

    What would a world look like while, at most, a fifth of the world population have access to this technology?

    What about the disparity within the western world? Would poorer people be limited to the eeePC equivalent of an fterlife whilst the middle classes live on as Cray super computers? Would this lead to a new class structure. Those with fast brains would be able to work more effectively and maintain or extend their positions, whilst those who ‘died’ as working class would never have the processing power to effectively compete and better themselves?

    You’ve talked about operating much faster than ‘humans’ but would this be the case for most people? Could the vast majority just tick over, only operating at human speed even for special occasions? Would the physical restrictions in the number of processors and hardware available limit all or msot people to speeds potentially slower than ‘human’ thought or do you think the efficiencies of not having to simulate full language centres etc balance everything out?

    I think you’ve mentioned a short story about a simulation slowly grinding to a halt as entropy consumed the universe, but might this happen for economic resons before hand. I’ve not seen any stories about the transition to mass digitisation, it could easily end up resembling Stanley Kubrick’s AI with a huge backlash against digital people.

    I can’t see pension funds stretchign to many years of simulation.
    Maybe this would encourage companies to move back to something more akint o final salary pensions – you spend your life working for a company and then when you die they sponsor your digitisation so that you can carry on working for them.

    Or perhaps as you’re nearing deaths door you have to start applying for jobs to get a sponsored place. Imagine great digital conglomerates recruiting the brightest people just before they die, offering different processor speeds rather than salaries. Could your entire life then be tied to the company? What happens if you get fired, do you have a months notice to find another company to sponsor you before you get switched off for good?

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @James Heaver: Those are some excellent points!

    I imagine that the digitization process will be prohibitively expensive initially. So a prospective upload candidate will must have enough resources available to purchase himself enough processing power. As the technology develops however I believe that we will eventually have vast computing clouds that will make it available to those with less wealth and affluence.

    I’m also sure there would be laws and regulations in place considering “switching off” digital people. So I company probably won’t be able to simply delete their former employee from their data center as that would be equivalent to murder. They could of course “accidentally” lose data but that’s a whole other story… In all however I think that handling digital souls will be highly regulated and that human rights will be strictly enforced – at least in the western countries. So I buying immortality in exchange for loyalty to a company probably wont happen.

    I believe you are making a parallel between upload and maintenance costs and health insurance. I think it will work more like retirement fund (cause that’s what it really is, is it not?). It might even get rolled into your 401k plan or something similar. So your employer will contribute to your fund and when you switch jobs you take the plan and your savings with you. That sounds more reasonable to me than a benefits based model that requires you to be employed or else.

    Naturally, these funds won’t cover your whole afterlife – but they will cover the costs of upload and the first few years in the virtual world so that you will be able to take it easy, adjust to the new life and find something meaningful to do with your life.

    If we do see a migration online, what will probably happen is thinning out of western population. This may mean that on average the quality of life of a non-digital citizen may improve (or not). There will be a lot of job openings that have to do with maintaining this infrastructure. Especially manual labor which can’t be easily done from within the virtual world. This could possibly offer the lower class people some upward mobility. They could get a job in one of the data processing farms, work their way up and one day afford an upload for themselves.

    I do think that there will be social tensions between living and the dead and there will be terrorist attacks against the data centers. I assume that most of these facilities will end up maintaining a small mercenary army for that very reason.

    In fact it is likely that we will see more and more closed, well defended communities owned by corporations and affluent ghosts. Did you ever read Oryx and Crake? It may be a bit like that – maybe less drastic though.

    I’m thinking there would be several ways towards immortality for those who were born in poverty. They could either try to get a job at one of the major corps, work their way up and earn it. Alternatively they could become a merc. I suspect that the corps would offer great immortality plans to their defenders after their contract is completed.

    Of course you could also turn to a life of crime, and earn your immortality that way.

    Anyway, thanks for the great comment. Really thought provoking stuff.

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  3. This is a theme that pops up in sci-fi frequently. Your particular scenario reminds me of Cory Doctorow’s I, Rowboat, where human minds roam the interstellar Internet but occasionally inhabit human bodies to use them as toys. AI minds also roam around, though they cannot inhabit human bodies.

    Kurt Vonnuegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House has a short story called Unready to Wear (some pages on Google books). Here, the minds aren’t digital, just freely roaming. The story opens with a bunch of minds inhabiting various bodies for their yearly parade. They aren’t very good at controlling them, so the bodies stumble around and are a bit beat up from use. It’s a really funny read.

    Then there’s Tron where physical objects, including humans, are digitized and sent into a computer world. This seems a lot like the simulation you say is unnecessary, which is true, but how else would you make a movie out of it? :-P

    A question: if you can digitize a mind, can you easily make copies of it? Backups? Could you fork/branch your life to explore different possibilities? Like anything digital, human minds would become non-scarce.

    I also like the question above about resources. Will the rich get to run their minds on supercomputers? Will it even matter? As long as the perception of passing time is proportional to the computations spent and these minds are immortal, then who cares if doing a task takes 100 minutes or 100 years? Even in the event of a cold death of the universe, minds could still be simulated forever by doing computations, then taking increasingly long breaks in between. To the simulated minds there are no breaks.

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  4. gabe UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    neat post. it reminds me an article I read once (here) that speculated about what it would be like to operate or program an infinitely fast computer. if all computations could be done instantaneously, how would that affect the way we write code and the things that could be done? regarding your post, what would it feel like to be suddenly acquire the ability to think with near-infinite speed? in your example of a board meeting, I don’t see any reason why it should take 10 minutes, rather a few milliseconds would probably suffice. the concept of ‘attention’ is central to human thought, but if we existed in a massively parallel identity-kernel of some sort, would we need to focus on one thing at a time? i want to know what it would feel like. what of the passage of time?

    also, another very interesting story is called ‘where am I?’ by daniel dennet (here) that explores the sense of location that we all feel. when you say things like “I’m right here” you’re implicitly referring to the center of your sensory perception. if this sensory perception were distributed that sense of location would completely dissolve.

    come to think of it, the only reason why we have separate identities at all is because we’re each running on separate processors (our brains). if we were all running on the same machine, is there any reason why we wouldn’t just merge into a big borg-like collective? would everyone make their identities open-source or would we keep secrets?

    i’ll be mulling this over all day… thanks for the post.

    PS – this is probably obvious, but your description of the post-singularity world sounds an awful lot like the way heaven is conventionally described.

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  5. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @Chris Wellons: Yes, I believe you will be able to make copies of yourself. This may or may not be feasible based on resources. You could also back yourself up.

    Not that it matters though. I still stubbornly claim that restoring from backup is not immortality. Once you are switched off, you are off for good. What gets rolled back from backup is not you anymore, but an exact copy. Of course I might be wrong – there is literally no way to test it.

    If you survive a restore from backup you will probably tell me that I’m wrong – but once again – you are not you anymore. Or something like that.

    In similar vein, forks of you would become separate entities. Here is where it gets interesting though. Since you are a digital mind now, can you partition your personality? For example, let’s say you always loved Art but your current commitments do not allow you to pursue a career in that direction. Can you make a copy of yourself, selectively picking which memories and passions to bestow upon that creation? For example, can you give the clone all of your artistic creativity an none of the traits that always held you back from becoming an artist? Can you then delete those regions of memories so that they no longer distract you?

    Then again, if you are a digital mind you could probably divide your attention quite easily and be an artist, a businessman and a scientist at the same time without drastic partitioning of your consciousness.

    Of course that begs a question whether or not our cognitive processed can be parallelized and run as multiple threads. It’s not trivial to answer this because we don’t know how a digital mind would work.

    @gabe: Very interesting point. I don’t think running on “the same processor” would cause us to merge into a shared consciousness. We would all have our own separate environments and memory areas like modern software does when it runs on a modern OS.

    You do make a good point – I do believe that some people would choose to merge together into composite consciousness type beings. It would allow for sharing resources, as well as memories and feelings. It probably be the most intimate relationship that two (or more) digital minds would develop. Something that no mortals could ever hope to emulate while still in flesh. It would also probably be irreversible (or at least hard to reverse).

    I imagine that 2-3 person composites would probably be born out of passion and would be fairly unstable from psychological perspective – as the merged personalities would clash together causing internal conflicts and emotional distress. A larger composites (of few hundred or thousands of minds) would be much more stable as the psychological and cognitive differences would be averaged out.

    Of course we are talking about complete merging of consciousness – where the ghosts cease to exist as separate entities and start thinking as a single unit. It is also possible to have a different type of composite personality.

    In his short story Steve Yegge mentioned Rivers – post singularity social networks with their own consciousness. Participants would be completely autonomous and each of them would have only a minimal control over the whole. They would be like cells in a larger organism – and they could come and go as they pleased. The River as a whole would have a separate consciousness that would be the result of millions of participants all pulling strings, voting and interacting at the same time.

    Also, I’m loving this thread – these comments are better than my original post. :)

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  6. gabe UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    re: merging – once you’re digital there’s no reason to choose between merging or not-merging. you could, in principle, make copies of yourself and have different lives/decisions with each. it’s like the difference between real property and intellectual property. you could actually have multiple futures limited only by storage/memory space. maybe that’s where the resource-allowances would come into play: it would be like a hotmail account where you get 2GB of free storage for signing up, but if you want more cloud-space you have to pay. one free-afterlife per customer, but if you want multiple futures you have to pay. but to me it gets back to what it would feel like: which one of your copies would feel like the real one? would you still have a sense of self?

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  7. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @gabe: I guess each copy would feel like the original one. If you fork yourself completely, then you are creating a new personality. That persona will live on to have a happy fulfilling life, but it will be completely separate of you.

    This is how I see it – the conception of self will be limited to your current process and all it’s concurrent threads. Once you spawn a child process (ie. new PID) it gets it’s own heap and stack and therefore operates as it’s own entity and externally from you.

    If your process is killed, you die – but you can be reverted from backup. This does not mean you are bound to a single CPU – as your state will be held in the cloud somewhere and any processing center will be able to pick up the slack.

    You know what… I’m starting to change my mind on this. Let’s say your process crashes due to hardware failure or an unexpected interruption of service but your state is held in memory. If it is possible to restart the process and it picks up from that state then it will seem like a momentary lapse to you. You will be interrupted mid thought, then you will realize that a lot of time has passed. Hmm… I must ponder this more.

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  8. icebrain PORTUGAL Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    If a fork from your main “process” is considered a different entity, even your first digital mind would be a different entity from your biological brain, as the both could coexist.

    As for the Virtual Simulation, I don’t agree: our mind is completely adapted to receive input from our senses and controlling our muscles. How could it change overnight to adapt itself to a whole different reality? It would probably drive it insane before learning to function properly.

    This digitalized minds have lots of other problems too: if many people are scared with the lack of privacy with current Cloud Services, like GMail, what would they do when a company owns all your memory, including your most intimate secrets? Or what if they “suspend” you and change your memories?

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  9. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Wow! Very good points.

    The privacy thing would be big. I’d imagine that most digital personalities would want their memories strongly encrypted to protect their privacy.

    Still, it would be interesting to see what would be the legal implications of having digital memory. Could court order your hosting company to turn in your memories as evidence? Could hosting companies be required to hold backups of memories which you purge/delete just for that reason?

    Very interesting stuff!

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