Would you want your persona to live forever in the metaverse after your physical body shuffles off this mortal coil? That is what the metaverse platform Somnium Space plans to offer its users, starting in the next year or so, with its Live Forever service.
By applying an unspecified artificial intelligence (A.I.), Live Forever would instantiate a digital avatar of the user based on vast amounts of information collected as he or she interacts in Somnium Space through virtual reality headsets, controllers, and, eventually, full-body haptic suits with motion capture and biometric monitoring. Data on facial expressions, body language, gait, voice, conversations, and character traits would allow the avatar to walk, talk, and react just like the deceased user. Descendants and friends could interact with the avatar in a perpetually accessible digital seance years and decades later.
At least initially, Live Forever avatars would be deathbots, or personalized chatbots based on training data voluntarily provided by specific dead individuals. "Maybe for the first 10 minutes while talking to that person, you would not know that it's actually A.I.," Somnium Space CEO Artur Sychov told Vice in April. "That's the goal." But "with the progression of A.I." over time, Sychov added, "we can recreate you better and better" using the same stored data.
How much better? A lot better, according to University of Southampton computer scientist Paul Smart. In his chapter, "Predicting Me: The Route to Digital Immortality?" in the 2021 book The Mind-Technology Problem, Smart notes that "an emerging consensus in cognitive science views the biological brain as a hierarchically-organized predictive processing system that relies on generative models to predict the structure of sensory information." Smart argues that future deep-learning-A.I. researchers will be able to create analogous synthetic generative models capable of "capturing the essential elements of who and what we are."
The development of these models, Smart says, would "provide the means by which some aspect of ourselves is able to persist long after the biological body has withered away." Such advancements in artificial intelligence will enable the digital resurrection of an individual as "a sentient being, capable of enjoying (and enduring) the rich panoply of emotional states and conscious experiences that characterized their biological life."
Digital immortals would continue to learn and evolve their personalities and interests, form new social relationships with other digital immortals and biological people, and own both physical and virtual assets. Whether folks still existing in meatspace would recognize digital immortals as persons (with rights) remains to be seen.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Digital Immortality or Deathbot?".