On the afternoon of Sept. 28, Dr. Kevin O’Neill sat in an arm chair with his new book, The Internet Afterlife, in hand. An intimate audience of professors and students gathered in the Holt Lobby of the Johnston Center of Integrative Studies at the University of Redlands to listen to O’Neill share his findings of technological life beyond death.
O’Neill is a retired Johnston professor with an expertise in a variety of subjects, one of them being the philosophy of death. He first became interested in this topic when he ran across a collection of post-mortem photos at the University of California Riverside called Sleeping Beauty by Stanley Burns. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, people would take photos of their departed loved ones and hang them in their front parlor. This started O’Neill’s questioning of how people think about death.
He gave the audience a brief outline of his book on the evolution of technology’s relationship with death. He started with the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which compiles videos, audio recordings and pictures to make a biography of the dead. With the application of these mediums, they create a video that visitors can load and watch on a kiosk. However, these are not interactive. O’Neill was wondering if it was possible to take it to the next level and create interactive avatars of our deceased, meaning people can still communicate with their passed loved ones through technology.
O’Neill went on to discuss memorial websites and explored the idea that the internet is immortal. While individual memorial sites dedicated to individuals were “pathetic” because no one visited them, memorial websites are more popular for victims of natural disasters, mass shootings, 9/11, the Holocaust and police shootings.
O’Neill described the unique relationship between memorialization and social media. Unlike the memorial sites, these sites were set up by the actual individual and have an essence of who the person was, he said. O’Neill noticed that the loved ones of the deceased would still go on their social media sites and write to them as if they were still with us. Twitter takes this idea further. They have created a feature that allows a synthesized interaction from deceased Twitter users. The individual can give Twitter permission to evaluate past tweets and produce new ones that are similar in syntax to what the subject would have written. In turn, illustrating the appearance that they are still speaking. However, O’Neill still sees these transmissions as non-interactive.
There have been attempts of creating online replicas of the dead, O’Neill said. Intellitar, Virtual Eternity, and My Life Bits are some companies that are working on creating intelligent avatars that represent the deceased. University of Southern California’s Institute of Creative Technology is currently in the works of interviewing a Holocaust survivor to holistically understand their experience. Their goal is to extrapolate this information to create a hologram of the survivor in the next two to three years. This creates a larger distribution of information because the hologram could answer questions that people have about the Holocaust. In this way he will live forever, O’Neill said.
There is still the question of whether or not it’s possible to extract one’s identity and translate it to a digital format. O’Neill went on to analyze the Transhumanist movement, the belief that it is possible to take control of the slow process of natural selection and use artificial intelligence to speed up human development.
“The consciousness is a set of codes,” O’Neill said. The body is seen as useless in the Transhuman movement, he shared.
O’Neill told his audience about Martine Rathblatt and Dr. Dmitry Isakov, both individuals who believe in Singularity, the idea that humans and machines will eventually be non-distinguishable. However, they have diverging ideas of how this may happen.
Isakov, a Russian scientist, wants to destroy death. O’Neill described to his audience the several stages in which Isakov sees this happening. First, people would live in coffin type spaces, which would be their command center while their avatar roams the Earth. Picture the movie Avatar. The problem with this is that the human body will inevitably die. Another solution was to graft an android onto one’s head or brain to place the being on life support. Again, the brain would still eventually die. In order to overcome death there would be a complete artificial brain replicate made out of nanobots. With these nanobots, the consciousness can take any form it pleases. Eventually, Isakov envisions the consciousness will be able to create individual universes.
Rathblatt is a transgender Los Angeles lawyer who launched the first global satellite radio company and a biotech company that found a cure for her child’s rare disease. She launched the Terasem Movement, which is a transhumanist school of thought of technological immortality. The first step, is to create an avatar that she will train to act like an individual. Once the real person dies, the online replica will think of itself as the deceased person. Eventually, humans will lose their physical bodies and exist virtually. Because the minds are all made of the same algorithms, every consciousness will instantly share companionship. Rathblatt visualizes, that everyone’s consciousness will eventually become one and will replace the universe with a virtual copy.
O’Neill shared that he liked Rathblatt’s vision better, but regardless of the future of the internet afterlife, all in all it is a “mystical vision of pure intelligence living together in a single entity… in a universe that we have created.”
[photo by Redlands Bulldog photographer, Blair Newman]