The avatar of my father

HORATIO: O day and night, but this is wondrous strange.

The Singularity – the prophesied moment when artificial intelligence leaps ahead of human intelligence, rendering man both obsolete and immortal – has been jokingly called “the rapture of the geeks.” But to Ray Kurzweil, the most famous of the Singularitarians, it’s no joke. In a profile in the current issue of Rolling Stone (not available online), Kurzweil describes how, in the wake of the Singularity, it will become possible not only to preserve living people for eternity (by uploading their minds into computers) but to resurrect the dead.

Kurzweil looks forward in particular to his reunion with his beloved father, Fredric, who died in 1970. “Kurzweil’s most ambitious plan for after the Singularity,” writes Rolling Stone’s David Kushner, “is also his most personal”:

Using technology, he plans to bring his dead father back to life. Kurzweil reveals this to me near the end of our conversation … In a soft voice, he explains how the resurrection would work. “We can find some of his DNA around his grave site – that’s a lot of information right there,” he says. “The AI will send down some nanobots and get some bone or teeth and extract some DNA and put it all together. Then they’ll get some information from my brain and anyone else who still remembers him.”

When I ask how exactly they’ll extract the knowledge from his brain, Kurzweil bristles, as if the answer should be obvious: “Just send nanobots into my brain and reconstruct my recollections and memories.” The machines will capture everything: the piggyback ride to the grocery store, the bedtime reading of Tom Swift, the moment he and his father rejoiced when the letter of acceptance from MIT arrived. To provide the nanobots with even more information, Kurzweil is safeguarding the boxes of his dad’s mementos, so the artificial intelligence has as much data as possible from which to reconstruct him. Father 2.0 could take many forms, he says, from a virtual-reality avatar to a fully functioning robot … “If you can bring back life that was valuable in the past, it should be valuable in the future.”

There’s a real poignancy to Kurzweil’s dream of bringing his dad back to life by weaving together strands of DNA and strands of memory. I could imagine a novel – by Ray Bradbury, maybe – constructed around his otherworldly yearning. Death makes strange even the most rational of minds.

38 thoughts on “The avatar of my father

  1. Tom Lord

    Sorry, I can’t believe that Kurtzweil is other than either lying or schizo/pschotic. He’s too well connected and (reported to be) lucid to believe what he’s spouting unless he’s just that out of it.

    Maybe he’s a kind of sadist / semi-(benevolent)-sociopath who started spinning this yarn years ago precisely in hopes of snowing a bunch of socialite-capitalists into granting him their good name. Joke’s getting a bit stale, though.


  2. Laurent

    I have already expressed my doubts about Singularity on this blog, but resurrecting dead people based on DNA and peers memory sounds like wishful thinking.

    In Kurzweil’s model, a personality can be completely defined by DNA and external memories. I understand that DNA influences our personality a lot. But what about personal experiences, in particular as a kid or teen? Don’t they shape our personalities too?

    How do you recreate, say, years of practice of storytelling? If Mr. Kurzweil’s father was a sharp mind it was probably not just defined by DNA – he probably had been exercising his brain for years. Unless of course you believe nature is everything and nurture is nothing.

  3. Tom Lord

    Laurent, you don’t fully appreciate the depth of the sociopathy here.

    Kurzweil is saying that “if it looks a bit like, smells a bit like my father — and somehow remembers (as if having had) experiences that jive with my memories — then I count that ‘device’ as my father, for practical purposes”. “Make me 10 of them and let me compare. I’ll use whichever one I wnat on a given day.”

    You are supposed to have one of two reactions. You’re supposed to go “Gee whiz! Really?!? Sign me up, that’s cool!” in which case you look like a fool.

    Or, you’re supposed to say “Oh, that’s so philosophically wrong! It’s immoral. How dare you contemplate such evil tech!” In which case you look like a fool.

    Or, you can say: um, you know this guy is just bs’ing everyone, right?

    Nanobots reading his memory for details of his father and transferring it meaninfully… that’s funny! I mean, over the past 30 or so years I’m sure Kurtzweil has privately had his ear bent about 1000 different times about how utterly full of sh-t this concept is.

    But, you know, there are snipes in the woods tonight and, well, this camp fire won’t stay lit much longer, so gather around while Ray tell’s y’all an important and pointed little story…


  4. Barry Kelly

    Bringing back memories, and reintegrating into a recognizable intelligence, is indeed far-fetched and pretty unlikely. However, the core concept of a singularity – hyper-exponential growth in technological capability – is theoretically solid.

    Human thought is an algorithm running on the laws of physics. Sooner or later that algorithm will be understood, simulated and improved upon. Computers will be able to simulate the algorithm because they are also implemented on top of the laws of physics. If digital computers along the lines of the von Neumann machine, or physical equivalents of Turing machines or lambda calculus reducers do not have sufficient semantic richness, other operators may be introduced bringing the required physical law into the theoretical framework. There’s nothing magical about human thought.

  5. Barry Kelly

    Tom – don’t forget that people are devices too. Special ones because it’s us that’s doing the talking – but machines nonetheless.

    I do agree with you, however, that hoping to create future appearances based on inferring hidden models from messy and imperfect data about past appearances, is extremely optimistic.

  6. Tom Lord

    @Barry: A curious fact about the nature of “algorithms running on the laws of physics” in the sense you use the term is that the laws of physics prevent many of those algorithms from being simulated (run) in any other way than by the one unique way they are actually run. Simply saying that a macroscropic phenomenon is in some mathematical sense “an algorithm” *does not imply* that you can build a machine to do the same thing. Fact of life.

    @Barry(2): Did you hear that, just now? Back behind the tents? That was a snipe. I’m dousing the fire. Every man for himself!


  7. udo

    This unfortunate comment reveals that Kurzweil does not have a clue what he’s talking about. You cannot just re-run somebody’s genome, put in some random biographical information and expect the lost person to come back.

    The _only_ hope for restoring dead people lies literally in the process of retrieving accurate high-resolution molecular data from their brains while they’re still alive. And if they’re already dead at the time when this brainscan technology is discovered, you better hope advanced physics will give us some way to probe the universe back in time!

    There really is no other way. When we die, the molecular patterns that made up our mind rapidly dissolve and are lost to entropy.

    Cloning on the other hand will do nothing but get you a blank body. These are neurological discoveries that have been made decades ago! It’s quite disillusioning to see that an alleged expert in transhumanism like Kurzweil has such a fragile grasp on the actual science required for those processes.

    What he describes is a process of making a body that looks like a person you have known, and he hints at some mental conditioning aimed at making that _new person_ think they are someone dead in order to impersonate them for the benefit of the people left behind. That’s not right. If we’re making “resurrection” an objective, we should at least get our facts straight.

    I empathize with him, I really do. And to be fair, there is so much more to do before we can even visit this issue in earnest, like for example, making the actual breakthrough advances required for a singularity-like future. But I worry about the implications of this perfect display of incompetence and ignorance. It shows we’ve clearly given too much credit to the wrong people.

  8. Seth Finkelstein

    Ah, the discovery of humanities types of the old themes as expressed in good Science Fiction. What is the nature of mind? If it’s a bunch of algorithms, can you duplicate it, back it up, emulate it? Can you extrapolate it using partial information, in memories?

    It’s telling you bring up Ray Bradbury, one of the most literary writers of the area. It’s old, old, territory in hard SF.

  9. Linuxguru1968

    >> Using technology, he plans to bring his

    >> dead father back to life.

    I hope they don’t host the resurection software on Windows. It would be funny if he got BSOD just before his dad rises from the grave ….

  10. Luciano Fuentes

    I’m yet to read the article, so hopefully there’s some missing context that makes the excerpt sound less strange.

    If he’s so confident that advanced technologies can resurrect his father, why isn’t he confident that the same technologies could resurrect him too? It would save him the trouble of counting out his 200 pills each day.

  11. Ivo Quartiroli

    I have much respect for Kurzweil, his brilliant mind goes often toward projects aimed to help people’s suffering. But he embodies the apotheosis of Descartes’ delusion in understanding and controllig the whole existence through the intellect (and electronics in his case).

    Immortality has been pursued by Taoism as well, but they were looking to connect to the eternal components of our soul, from an inner perspective. I wrote about the Singularity and Kurzweil on The Singularity is Nearest

  12. Tom Lord

    You’re too kind to him, Seth.

    Bradbury never pretended to not be talking fiction, mainly – though perhaps he did say he was using fiction to illustrate certain philosophical concepts. He didn’t lie. He didn’t pimp BS as if it was fact.

    He didn’t inspire crap like a “singularity university” subsidized by taxpayers, a toy of google yahoos, allegedly for big high-falootin’ purposes but really intended to get a certain style of grad student to pay to pitch to the silly valley vc community.

    But, in fairness, I guess they’re all just being “colorful”.


  13. Seth Finkelstein

    I was talking more about Nick’s reaction, rather than what would seem very prosaic to someone raised on science fiction stories.

    I don’t know if Ray Kurzweil really believes what he’s saying, or is running a game. Pretty odd game if so, but I suppose there’s weirder.

    My reaction to the ideas is “Yeah, those SF stories were cool, and it’d be fantastic to live in that future, but it’s not happening anytime soon, if ever”.

    Barry Kelly: The key flaw is that there’s no reason to assume any intelligence of any sort can

    exponentially recurse self-improvement, and some good reasons to think that it cannot. This is never going to work to deprogram (pun unintended) True Believers though, who are just going to say the opposite.

  14. BryanK

    The book’s already been written: ‘Accelerando’ by Charles Stross. It was shortlisted for two awards — the 2006 Arthur C. Clarke award for best science fiction novel, and the BSFA award for best SF/F novel of 2005. Interesting read.

  15. David Evans

    Somebody get that man some Kool-aid antidote, stat! It’s fascinating to me that the technological fantasy that is the singularity could potentially be rooted in a yearning for lost loved ones. I think we can all sympathise with that very human need, yet at the same time recognise that our respect for the idea (if we had any) is diminished. I wrote a counter to the singularity theory that I’ve called the ‘Shakespeare theory’ on my blog here:

    On the subject of AI and cognition, I believe that the idea we can simply discover an algorithm and sort the whole thing out is based on some highly-flaky assumptions. I remember discussing aspects of this at University with Prof Stevan Harnad, who is a real expert on this…and also discovered that the archive discussion from 1995 is still on the web – – very strange experience to hear a younger version of myself on the web. It’s the first time it’s really happened to me.

  16. ordaj

    Maybe our complete lives are already imprinted within our DNA? Science for the longest time said most DNA was “junk DNA.” But what if it does record everything?

    Instinct is memory passed on. Maybe tales of reincarnation are just DNA memories. Our current computing technology and storage capabilities are achieved with binary code, 1s and 0s. Maybe our DNA code, ACGT, is exponentially more capable, enough to record a complete lifetime or even every life in our chain back to the beginning.

    Maybe we just need to learn how to read it to “view” all of our history.

    Now there’s an invention: a DNA reader to see all of history through a person’s DNA lineage.

    Or maybe I should write that story.

  17. Tom Lord


    I don’t see how it would be an “odd” game. It seems pretty lucrative. You come by having audience with big, loose money. You build a reputation as a clever, well-connected, scientifically-informed BS artist. You hit big silly themes like infinite intelligence or immortality – great stuff for a cocktail party. That crowd takes your BS to be good BS – i.e., plausible stories. They become your patrons as you run cover for things like the “pay to pitch” scheme running at Moffit field now.

    Only, deep down, you (the “BS artist”) don’t respect your patrons. And you know enough science to see for yourself the divergence between what your patrons think is plausible BS and what the scientists and engineers think is plausible BS. And you see that the closer a scientist or engineer is to the big money crowd, the less likely they are to be frank about the when the monied one’s are mistaking ridiculous, over-the-top, this-is-a-joke-can’t-you-see BS for plausible BS. In the echo chamber of your patrons, they can’t see their own cluelessness but a lot of people outside those loops can.

    So you pants them.

    Sounds like a not-very-strange game to me although, as you can tell, I don’t approve: it’s rude, indirect, self-serving, and socially destructive. One understands the counter-cultural subversive instinct that it contains but — it ain’t the right way to do it.


  18. Seth Finkelstein

    I haven’t investigated, but my impression was that Ray Kurzweil, while not superrich, was well-off enough and talented enough from his work that it wouldn’t be worthwhile for him to be running technospiritualism games. I can see there would be a relatively modest amount of money, but not more than he could personally do “straight”.

    This is in contrast to, for example, groups of people I see who seem to have decided that being a college professor in the humanities is far inferior to being a huckerster selling Internet hype to worried corporate managers. That’s understandable economically, since the salary of an ordinary good humanities professor is far below an ordinary good corporation consultant, and the financial upside doesn’t compare. But he’s in an entirely different category.

    I could be wrong, some of the system is a mystery to me.

  19. jcorbett

    The poingnancy your refer to Nicholas is something I wrote about in a blog post I titled – Life in Limbo, iron age to information age (linked in my sig). I hope you’ll forgive me for reproducing it in full here but I think it ties in well with your point –

    Life in Limbo – Iron Age to Information Age

    lim-bo [lim-boh]

    * neither dead nor alive

    * an intermediate, transitional, or midway state or place.

    * a place or state of imprisonment or confinement.

    Bog bodies, also known as bog people, are preserved human bodies found in sphagnum bogs in Northern Europe, Great Britain and Ireland. Unlike most ancient human remains, bog bodies have retained skin and internal organs due to the unusual conditions of preservation.

    A few nights ago I watched a fascinating Timewatch documentary on the Iron Age bog bodies found in Ireland in 2003. The brutal murders of Clonycavan Man and Old Croghan Man were both carbon dated to around 300 BC and theorized to be have been carried out as sacrifice to the gods of fertility. Not only were the twenty-something victims physically tortured before death but also, ghoulishly, subjected to the ultimate in metaphysical torment – their bodies were tied down in the shallow water of the bog where they would be preserved for all time in a state of limbo, neither in the land of the living nor of the dead but imprisoned between.

    I doubt that in 300 BC the grieving relatives of Clonycavan Man and Old Croghan Man had any portrait or physical image of their loved ones to hold on to. Other than a brooch or item of clothing perhaps, the murdered men had vanished off the face of the earth and with them, essentially, all traces that they’d ever lived.

    Fast forward two millenia. In August 2006 I lost my father to a short battle with cancer. In the weeks and months before Dad’s passing I took dozens of photos and videos on my mobile phone during days out, birthdays, family get-togethers and random non-events. I know that Dad features in many of those digital records but 18 months on I still can’t bring myself to review them. I treasure them but I can’t look. I’ve stored them on a hard drive, archived to CD and backed up to the web because I know sometime, I’ll want to share them with the whole family. But not for now. It would only torment me.

    Fast forward again. Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi thriller Minority Report stars Tom Cruise as a futuristic policeman driven by guilt and the memory of his kidnapped son Sean to prevent similar crimes befalling other families. Cruise’s character, John Anderton compulsively plays back holographic home movies of Sean, in order to relive happier times. Ironically, reliving the pain of losing Sean as each movie comes to an end. Tormenting himself.

    A year ago my nighttime dreams were dominated by memories of my father. I frequently woke up with his face and voice still vividly in my mind. And then, as the realization set in that it was only an illusion a deep and unsettling despondency enveloped me followed by a desire to return to sleep and replay the dream. I didn’t want to let go.

    Letting go. It’s one of the final stages in the process of grieving – (1) emotional numbness, (2) deep yearning, (3) anger / guilt, (4) sadness / loneliness, (5) letting go / acceptance, (6) hope. John Anderton didn’t want to let go either. His anger and guilt were overlapping with sadness and loneliness. So he held onto Sean by projecting his dreamlike hologram, or avatar, in mid-air and reliving the past. Over and over again.

    Avatar is the name of James Cameron’s new movie, now in production, due for release in December 2009. In Cameron’s original script treatment of Avatar a man tries to make his way as a miner by combining with an alien during an interplanetary war in which aliens can manifest themselves by possessing human bodies — avatars.

    Cameron will use his own Reality Camera System to film Avatar in 3-D and plans to shoot exclusively in 3-D going forward. He’s not the only one. When Wired reported on Beowulf, it explained that 3-D is staging a big comeback in Hollywood as it battles against new media and home theater systems. “[Hollywood is] struggling to dazzle a moviegoing public accustomed to multimillion-dollar computer-generated effects. This time around, a handful of blockbuster directors are driving the action: Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Robert Zemeckis, and James Cameron. ‘They’re all feeding off each other,…they’re all pushing for [3D]’.”

    Inevitably of course this 3D technology will also, as with digital camcorders, large size screens and surround sound, trickle down to the consumer market. And we’ll be filming our home movies in High Definition 3D. Wired subsequently reported on a new technology for 3D holographic movies – “Made by Quebecois company RabbitHoles, the advertisements feature one of the film’s characters tearing up the dance floor in an eight-second clip that can be “played” in 3-D by walking from left to right of the poster. Despite the images’ slightly transparent quality, what you see is pretty close to the real thing.”

    So how long will it be before we’re producing holographic home movies? Not long. Not long until we’re recording, lifestreaming and projecting phantom-like images of ourselves and our loved ones. Like John Anderton reliving joyful moments with his son Sean. Like John Anderton being tormented by a digital ghost.

    ‘Avatar’ is derived from a Hindu word referring to the incarnation, or bodily manifestation, of a higher being onto planet Earth. As we move ever closer to the capability of holographic home movie-making is there a danger that vulnerable minds will freeze frame the grieving process by grasping at the illusion of virtual reincarnation? Will we be possessed by avatars? Will it be harder than ever to let go? Not accepting the death of a loved one. Leaving them neither in the land of the living nor of the dead, but imprisoned between?

    In the Iron Age it was the dead who were sometimes left in limbo. In the information age it could well be the living.

  20. Tom Lord

    We’re talking apples and oranges then because I don’t believe in scalar-valued huckster/sincere axis. A game is a game is a game and an interpretation of a game is something else. Degrees of sincerity are just a self-interpretation in the moment – but, as method acting shows, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything lasting or “of the essence” about the underlying game.


  21. Linuxguru1968

    If Kurzweil is guilty of anything, it being too optimistic. Technologist tend to lead you to believe that technologies like this are just around the corner when if fact they are centuries away. What he is describing will come to pass, but not until long after we are all fossils in somebody’s back yard. Perhaps he’s motivated by the reality of his own mortality. As Samuel Johnson once observed, “Nothing focuses the mind like a hanging”.

  22. Barry Kelly


    “@Barry: A curious fact about the nature of “algorithms running on the laws of physics” in the sense you use the term is that the laws of physics prevent many of those algorithms from being simulated (run) in any other way than by the one unique way they are actually run.”

    That assumes that the processes of e.g. the neuron are already the most efficient implementation of their function. Given how blind a watchmaker evolution is, that’s incredibly unlikely – check out the circuitousness route of the vas deferens, or the inside-out design of the eye’s retina (the photoreceptors are *underneath* almost everything else), for simple examples of dumbass design in mother nature.

    “Simply saying that a macroscropic phenomenon is in some mathematical sense “an algorithm” *does not imply* that you can build a machine to do the same thing. Fact of life.”

    Actually, the very facts of life does imply that. We have an existence proof already: people (male and female pairs) have been building them since time immemorial. Surely I don’t have to explain the birds and bees to you!

    Evolution is so clearly such a pitiful inventor and refiner of designs that suggesting that the addition of some rationality wouldn’t improve things is wholly unconvincing.

  23. Seth Finkelstein

    @Barry Kelly – What you’re arguing is an improvement in a constant – which is quite different from exponential.

    That’s another key flaw, the tendency to conflate the two.

Comments are closed.