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Scientifically Verified Immortality

Having written a bit on the subject, I was glad to see NYT writer Jim Holt take on the topic of “scientifically verified immortality.” He writes about those who, “while secular in outlook, still pine after immortality,” mentioning William James’s interests here. (For a fascinating piece of intellectual history, check out the extraordinary series of Ingersoll Lectures on immortality James helped inaugurate.) Here’s a provocative bit of Holt’s piece:

In his 1994 book, “The Physics of Immortality,” Frank J. Tipler, a specialist in relativity theory at Tulane, showed how future beings might, in their drive for total knowledge, “resurrect” us in the form of computer simulations. (If this seems implausible to you, think how close we are right now to “resurrecting” extinct species through knowledge of their genomes.)

I think such ideas are part of a larger ideological effort to get people to identify “themselves” as the pattern of thoughts and actions that constitute their characteristic response to the world. The proposed translation of persons into words, numbers, and algorithms, and the presumed fixation of those formulae into a robot, is the real aim here. Though I disagree with him on many things, William Dembski has a nice account of the motivations behind such a view:

Alan Turing, one of the founders of modern computation, was fascinated with how the distinction between software and hardware illuminated immortality. Turing’s friend Christopher Morcom had died when they were teenagers. If Morcom’s continued existence depended on his particular embodiment, then he was gone for good. But if he could be instantiated as a computer program (software), Morcom’s particular embodiment (hardware) would be largely irrelevant. Identifying personal identity with computer software thus ensured that people were immortal since even though hardware could be destroyed, software resided in a realm of mathematical abstraction and was thus immune to destruction.

An article in the same issue of the Times helps advance such self-understandings, introducing us to robots who, it assures us, empathize with us:

Sociable robots come equipped with the very abilities that humans have evolved to ease our interactions with one another: eye contact, gaze direction, turn-taking, shared attention. They are programmed to learn the way humans learn, by starting with a core of basic drives and abilities and adding to them as their physical and social experiences accrue. People respond to the robots’ social cues almost without thinking, and as a result the robots give the impression of being somehow, improbably, alive.

Discussing how scientists evaluate the “humanity” of their artificial intelligence creations, Sherry Turkle observed that “what is involved here is not a weighing of scientific theory but an appropriation of images and metaphors.” The machines appear (and perhaps become) more like humans as humans understand themselves more as machines: patterns of thought and response, not embodied creatures.