Arianna DagninoQ: I’m interested in the notion of recording a person’s lifelong sensory impressions on an implanted chip. Let’s also suppose that the chip is equipped with a program that interviews the individual and records their internal monologue about these recorded events. Do you think this is a possible technology? A: This is a good topic to ask me about, as I’ve often written about this concept in my science-fiction --- I first presented the idea in my 1986 short story, “Soft Death.” I use the word “lifebox” to describe the kind of life-recording device you’re talking about. It’s a notion I’m still thinking about; in fact, I just finished writing a long nonfiction book called The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul. I also have quite a bit about lifeboxes in my 1999 futurological novel Saucer Wisdom. To begin with, I think we need to be clear that using implanted chip technology for a lifebox is out of the question. The implanted chip is a metaphor, a visual symbol that a director might use to represent a lifebox in a movie. But in practice, there will never be a successful industry based on putting brittle hardware into people’s bodies. A chip in your body would lead to computer virus attacks, a complete loss of privacy, and endless breakdowns and upgrades. Nobody is that stupid. This said, I do very strongly feel that we will soon see non -invasive lifebox technology. A feasible near-term realization of an image-oriented lifebox would be to wear a tiny head-mounted video camera capable of uploading sounds and images to a high-volume database. The camera could be in, for instance, the frame of your glasses. A less intense approach is to use the camera in your cell phone, and to take photographs that are uploaded to a database. Images alone don’t tell your eventual audience enough. A lifebox needs to preserve some of your words, as words are so good at expressing your thoughts. As well as comments on images, you’d want to record long blocks of independent text describing your memories, ideas and fantasies. One approach for preserving text is to record voice messages. But written messages are easier to absorb; a reader can scan through text very quickly. In either case, a cell-phone or computer-based lifebox device could assist you with this by using some rudimentary AI to ask you relevant questions. Such as this email interview. Q: When do you foresee the lifebox to become a mass phenomenon, with hundreds of thousands of digital personalities? Who will care about them? A: I think it’s already happening in the form of blogs. Blogging is a mass phenomenon. A blog is a kind of lifebox: a digital model of the author’s actions and thoughts. Note that blogs contain both images and words --- which are carefully arranged. People might like to imagine that they could create a lifebox model of themselves just by taking a hundred pictures a day or by wearing a video camera. But they’d be wrong. The pen is as mighty as the camera. And editing is essential. Without editing, the Venus de Milo is a block of marble. The blog or the lifebox is a form of art, a kind of self-expression. Most of us aren’t blessed with the ability to create art with broad appeal. Nearly everybody writes and photographs a little, but only a few get published or appear on museum walls. Why would it be any different with the lifeboxes? If you don’t analyze the situation very deeply, you might imagine that a lifeboxing tool could be so well-automated that it produces a gripping biography of anyone’s life. But the production of art is an unsolvable programming program! Part of the problem is that art is a moving target. As soon as something becomes easy, we expect more. We only have the time and energy to look at a very limited number of works by other people. This leads us to your second question, “Who will care about these lifeboxes?” Hardly anyone. Most lifeboxes are going to be viewed only by the authors’ friends and family. But this is still enough to produce a mass market for lifeboxing software and hardware. If your grandchildren can know a little more about you, then maybe you’ve accomplished enough. After all, it’s very common for retired people to want to write a little memoir so that their family can remember them better. Having a little cell-phone-sized device which asks you questions would be a pleasant way to carry out such a project. Q: Will the use of the lifebox affect the way we make experiences so as to have memories to cherish? And what about the bad experiences, the ones we desperately want to forget? A: Let me invent a very short story. A guy on a business trip goes to a prostitute. He uses his cell phone to take a picture of them having sex. She charges him a little extra for that, but otherwise she doesn’t care. For her it’s free advertising. Now the guy is originally planning to save the picture just for himself, to gloat over, but he can’t resist forwarding a copy of the file to his best friend Luigi back home. But Luigi forwards the picture to the guy’s wife! And then Luigi goes to visit the wife in person. The wife is so mad at her husband that she has sex with Luigi, and cell-phones her husband a photo of them in action. This cautionary tale gives you an idea of why nobody would want an implanted lifebox. You could never be a hundred percent sure that it wasn’t recording something you’d rather not publicize. It’s best to keep your most personal memories in one place only: the intimate tangles of your neurons. Q: The next obvious step will be to try to recreate on a digital support all our personality to have a cyber self that could live and interact with the living even after our death. Is this the first step to reach our quest for immortality through digital technology? A: Part of the appeal of a lifebox model of yourself is indeed that it can survive indefinitely. This is a project I actually think about carrying out during my declining years. My idea would be to create a website with a large data base containing the full text of all my books, all my journals, and a connective guide/memoir --- with the whole thing annotated and hyperlinked. And I’d throw in a bunch of photographs --- I’ve taken thousands over the years. The tricky part is to endow the lifebox with interactive abilities so that people can ask it questions and have it answer with appropriate links and words. But this doesn’t seem impossibly difficult; a first approximation would simply to be use a search engine. And if the answers aren’t always quite relevant --- well, talking to a person is like that. The result could be a construct that’s within hailing distance of being a simulacrum of the lifebox’s author. So, yes, the lifebox is a form of immortality. Q: Then the final leap: uploading all our mind on a digital support. What about consciousness? Shall we still be able to recognize ourselves even if we will be nothing more than bits, perhaps encapsulated into a robot body, as you wrote in Software? A: We have two related issues here. The first is whether a computer program or a robot will ever be conscious in the same sense that a person is. And the second is whether a conscious copy of me would be in some sense the same as me. Regarding the first question, I think robots could indeed become conscious in the usual sense of the word, but that this won’t happen for at least a hundred years. Building hardware that’s roughly as powerful as a human brain isn’t so hard, but designing the architecture and software for a thinking brain is very difficult. Our own brains arose only as the result of millions of years of evolution. It may be that the only way to design conscious machines is to simulate a race’s evolution, and this will take awhile. As for the second question, if pressed, I feel that the essential core of each human is the same, a droplet of God, a spark of White Light, the ability to say “I am.” So in this sense, yes, a robot copy of me would be the same as me. I might not find this news very comforting if some friendly robot doctors were about to extract my software by running my brain through a food processor. And it may also be that to talk about a software copy is overlooking something. First of all, a person is a complex flesh and blood body as well as a brain. And secondly, it could be that a person does have a specific immortal soul. Nothing is out of the question. Our conception of reality is always subject to change. Q: There’s a branch of science looking at developments that nowadays might look as futuristic as the uploading option in the direction of a biological life-extension, towards quasi-immortality. Would achievements in this field overcome the longing for a transfer of minds on a chip? A: Biological life extension is much more likely in the near term than digital immortality. Computer science might in fact be a red herring, a false trail. Biology is in many ways more attractive. Who wants, after all, to be bits on a chip? I much prefer the wet funky flow of Mother Nature. A fluttering leaf is more interesting than a video game. The emphasis of computers and nanotechnology over biology is the result, I’d say, of a fear of the female principle. Another point regarding life extension: why would anyone want to live so very long? At some point, enough’s enough. The old trees need to fall down and rot so that the fresh young saplings can grow into the light. Q: We humans used to think of ourselves as the key players on stage. And we want to stay at the centre of it: we’ve been using children and/or works of art and science to grasp a sense of immortality, of life that still goes on after our death. But maybe one day the human race will simply disappear to be replaced by more intelligent beings (robots?). Is there any hope for us in the long run --- at least as a race, if not as individuals? What is a human being going to look like a hundred or a thousand years down the line? A: As you say, even if an individual achieve personal immortality, there’s social sorts of immortality. Your genes may survive in your descendants, and your ideas may survive in the minds of others. A society has a kind of hive mind which we all participate in, and the hive mind is potentially immortal. I think it’s very unlikely that we would be replaced by purely mechanical robots. Biology is vastly superior to mechanics --- for instance, unlike machines, biological organisms have homeostasis, that is, an ability to repair themselves. But what could happen is that, on the one hand, we begin to tinker with the genome, altering our biological make up and, on the other hand, we create mechanical devices to augment our bodies. Certainly in a thousand years we can expect to be cyborgs, that is, genomically tailored biological beings with mechanical add-ons. Amputees are already using very high-tech artificial limbs. And I don’t think a brain prosthesis is out of the question. I often write of a device that I call an “uvvy” for “universal viewer.” It’s a soft wireless computing device that rests on the nape of your neck and gives you instant cell phone abilities, internet browsing, and access to your lifebox database. At some point a person without an uvvy might not be considered a whole person at all. But even though our bodies will be upgraded in various ways, I don’t think human nature won’t change very much. When I wrote my novel about the age of Peter Brueghel, it was borne in upon me how similar the people I see on the street are to the people in Bruegel’s paintings. My prediction is that people won’t change very much, and the overarching hive-mind of human society will also remain much the same. We are close to having the uvvy, what with our increasingly powerful wireless devices. Cell phones have already greatly changed the details, if not the essence, of social dynamics. What’s still missing is a seamless user interface. Actually inserting wires into one’s brain is something that people will, quite correctly, never be willing to do. But perhaps we might be able to create tightly focused magnetic fields capable of interacting with the neurons in the brain stem. More realistically, we might wear what I call “stunglasses,” which combine a heads-up display with the user’s surroundings. Lightweight sensor-equipped fingerless gloves might allow someone to “type” simply by twitching their fingers. Everyone will have an uvvy within a hundred years. Cyberspace will ooze out of the machines to permeate every aspect of daily life. But, even so, we’ll still be the same kinds of people: lustful and greedy, noble and inspired.
Interview to Rudy Rucker for L’Espresso magazine. Genoa, 11/1/2004