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10-Year Archive

Humanizing Tech

The Technology of Death

The future of living forever may mean copying our souls into software

I. Overview

On Tuesday night, while the rest of the world was affixed to their devices bemoaning the outcome of the US Presidential election, we were racing home to Iowa to get to my grandmother before she passed away. With a 5-hour flight delay, and a 90mph race from Omaha to Sioux City, we nearly missed it.

My mom texted right as we pulled into Brookdale, “Hurry, RUN!!!” and so I found myself sprinting down an assisted living corridor, with my dad and my fiancé right behind me, towards the door holding my grandmother. She waited until we got there, and as I rushed to grab her hand, she took one final breath. And so I got to see her one last time, tell her I loved her, and say goodbye. She passed peacefully surrounded by family and love.

The entire experience got me thinking about death and the technology that’s around to help with the process. I’m not referring to the medical equipment, but rather to the means by which we can share her story in the obituary, at the funeral, and between each other.

II. Digital Memories

Of course there’s memories, there’s photos, there’s videos, there’s Facebook. But my grandmother had none of those. She didn’t have a cell phone and after 89 years of life, never experienced a computer. She did things the old fashioned way. With letters. She kept probably 1,000 letters that people had handwritten and sent to her over the years, piled in with another, blank stack, that she could use to send letters to others. She kept old photos, as far back as the 1800s which pictures of my great, great grandparents.

“Grandma B” and her husband, from my perspective, because I could pronounce “Barnett” when I was a kid.

But none of that ever found its way to social media or the non-existent camera rolls of her non-existent phone. Of course, you can argue that today we have plenty of that and it makes for a memorable experience to scroll through someone’s old Facebook wall to get a sense for them. But I’m not so sure that picture from college of your grandparent drinking a beer with friends is quite what we want to remember someone by.

Nor does most of it capture the most important part, their soul.

Sitting on a table at the front of the funeral home was a wooden tissue box. On the front was a simple message about you having a “Story”. My dad bent over and took a picture of it, looked up at me and said, “Reminds me of StoryApp”.

He’s right, you know.

We built StoryApp with a simple tagline, “You have a story”. Because everyone does. But as I pondered what that meant, after going through my grandma’s most valuable possessions, I realized it wasn’t the things you did in life that mattered, as most people will say, or even the possessions you had. But rather what you valued that was a better indicator of your soul.

That was nearly 4 years ago, of course, before Flipagram’s launch and Apple’s iOS 10 photo storybooks.

We went through my grandmother’s knick-knacks, including many figurines of cats, pheasants, and tiny elephants (my late grandfather’s favorite). But the things she valued most was the cards she received from other people over the years. It was the Employee of the Week award she earned after nearly 20 years working at Kentucky Fried Chicken, along with her various service award pins. She valued the things she never talked about and didn’t know she ever did, like the certificates she received from Boys Town after donating for many many years and becoming an honorary member.

But where is all of this stored? Where are her thoughts, her stories, her memories, the sounds of her laughter? But more importantly, where was her voice? How do I introduce her to the children that I will have one day?

There’s no way.

Dorothy Everett, in her teens, likely before her train ride to meet Keith in New York during WWII.

III. Digital Copies

As we begin to delve deeper into what it means to mimic biology and recreate this intelligence in software and hardware (wetware?) made from human hands, we uncover potential answers to questions we’ve been asking for a long time. What does it mean to have a soul? Could we ever copy it? Could we recreate a copy of ourselves in a future “computer”?

The current state of the art artificial intelligence uses a series of fairly simple math equations. All that they’re doing is trying to minimize error over some sample of data. So, many of these folks would argue that if you had enough of a person’s data, you could mimic them in software.

In fact, we have already seen something like this with a chatbot. Two friends, over the course of years, exchanged a large volume of text messages. Unfortunately, one of those friends took his own life. The other friend, who missed him dearly, used the data from an entire history of conversation, fed it through one of these equations and out the other side got something that sounded exactly like him. Now, when you text his chatbot, his friends say it eerily still sounds and feels like him.

This is a very simple example of copying someone’s soul. Of course, there’s no new creation, and it’s limited by only the words and phrasing used in a simple back and forth text conversation. There was no video, no voice, no photo, no virtual reality, no hologram. But it was enough to give people a feeling that it was him.

If you extrapolate out into the rest of the world, you could see how all the digital crumbs we’ve left from posting and writing online for years, plus the private conversations, could already be used to form a digital copy of ourselves, albeit a pretty basic one.

But in the future, if we really want to get a sense of someone, we need a more accurate copy of the inner workings of their biology should we want to truly mimic him or her. Many people hear this and don’t really like the sound of talking to someone who’s already passed on. But we kind of do that already, only we have a very binary way of doing it. We look at old photos. We talk about old memories. We watch old videos. Because we want to experience that person just one more time. We want to remember and hold on tight.

Dorothy Everett, in her own handwriting, reflecting on her past self.

IV. Introducing Biological Intelligence

Sebastian Seung, a physicist turned neuroscientist, who literally wrote the book, Connectome: How The Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are, argues that we are nothing more than the 100 billion neural connections inside our entire body. Said differently, that if you copy each and every connection in the human body, from the neurons in the brain to the nervous system throughout the body, that you would essentially recreate our soul. Turn off the electricity flowing through one body, copy and paste the connectome into another body, then flip the light switch back on and that’s us.

But, of course, it misses a large part of the biology, like the endocrine system. The chemicals that also assist in our emotions and physical well being.

On a more personal level, our team has recreated an animal’s connectome in software, and put it into another body (i.e., robot) and observed it behaving exactly like the animal in question. We created biological intelligence. And it wasn’t from a bunch of equations, but rather from a bunch of connections that operated in both space and time across a continuum of states.

C. Elegans Roundworm Connectome

But did we recreate the worm’s soul? Of course not.

Again, because we’re missing large pieces of the biological system that make us who we are. Adrenaline. Hunger. Fight or flight response to danger. Testosterone or estrogen. But there are some things hard-wired. Like the instinct for survival.

So if we continue down this path that scientists are already on and one day copy an entire human’s connectome, could we then imagine a world where we produce a Star Wars-like hologram of Princess Leia asking Obi-Wan Kenobi for help? I believe we can.

The original Star Wars, with Princess Leia asking Obi-Wan Kenobi for help, while Luke Skywalker and the droids watch on.

I also believe that when that day comes, our species will be much further advanced, not just technologically, but socially. Where pulling up a hologram of grandma to let your children interact and experience a piece of her would be okay. Just like showing them a picture today and saying, “That’s your grandma. I know she would have loved you very much”.

StoryApp’s KIIY, a character who experiences emotions listening to stories, just like you.

Millennials and Gen Z won’t have much of a problem with it because they already spend their entire lives interacting more with digital versions of ourselves on Snapchat than the real version.

Because the one thing I’ve learned over many years studying the human side of tech, building Confide for anonymous sharing, and StoryApp for saving someone’s story past their life, it’s that we want to feel close even when we’re not.

Even when we’re not.

Confide for anonymous sharing (2010, left), and StoryApp for storing life’s story (2013, right)

It doesn’t just mean when your family is on the other side of the country. But also when your family is on the other side of heaven.

And to you, Dorothy, there’s no place like home.

Dorothy & Keith Everett, on their wedding night, May 5, 1944.


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The Technology of Death was originally published in Humanizing Tech on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

from Stories by Sean Everett on Medium http://ift.tt/2f6QGXt