Elementary, My Dear Watson
In 2011, IBM made headlines when it pitted a computer system called Watson against two former "Jeopardy!" game show champions. Watson used 90 servers, 2,880 processor cores and 16 terabytes of memory to defeat its opponents. But even with all that computational horsepower, Watson can't simulate a human brain.
What if we could take what makes us who we are and put it into a digital format? What if you could upload your mind into a computer?
It's a tall order. Despite centuries of study and incredible advances in neuroscience, we still don't have a full understanding of the human brain. How does our sense of self relate to the brain? What is consciousness? What elements of human intelligence are fundamental? Can we simulate those functions within a virtual environment? How would you actually port a person's identity into a digital machine? Will it just be a scan that creates a copy or will it physically remove you from your body in some way?
Then there are questions that require more than technology to answer. If you are able to actually transfer yourself into a computer, what happens to your body? How would your digital consciousness react to seeing your body without you in it? If you just make a digital copy of yourself, what happens when the organic version of you dies? Will your computer copy mourn your loss? Will it even be able to feel real emotions? Who defines what is real versus what is merely simulated?
Then there are questions that are the real brain twisters. If you exist as a digital construct, would it be possible to merge with other digital consciousnesses? Could two people become one person? What about a population of people? Would we all become like the Borg in the "Star Trek" universe? What about the dangers of the digital realm -- could someone erase you? Could you be infected by some sort of computer virus?
Digital immortality may end up being more modest. We may just create artificially intelligent simulations of ourselves. This wouldn't really make you immortal but you might be somewhat comforted that a simulated version of yourself will keep your Facebook and Twitter statuses up to date long after you're gone.
Stage magician and technology journalist Brian Brushwood has already set up a primitive version of this concept. Every year on his birthday, Brushwood must check in to prove he's alive. The first year he fails to do so, his system will kick into gear. It will mine his past Facebook and Twitter updates and post them regularly indefinitely. Brushwood will effectively haunt his social network profiles forever [source: Brushwood].
We can't really answer any of these questions right now -- they remain in the realm of philosophy. If we never conquer the technological challenges that stand in the way all the questions are moot. But if we ever develop the technology that can actually support such a thing we need to consider the implications. The obstacles to digital immortality aren't merely technological in nature.
Next, we'll look at more questions we may have to answer before digital immortality becomes a reality.