Simulating the singularity


Some fear that the Singularity, when it arrives, will render the human race obsolete. Even if we survive, we’ll toil under the jackboots of our gizmos. But there’s also a sunnier view. If the Singularity goes well, we’ll not only live in what Richard Brautigan termed “mutually programming harmony” with our computers, but we’ll be immortal, our essence uploaded into massively redundant databases for eternity. Chief Singularitarian and newly minted Googler Ray Kurzweil has said that he even plans to bring his deceased dad back to life, reanimating his spirit from a few stray strands of DNA and a closetful of mementos.

But what if the Singularity doesn’t arrive? What if the Singularity turns out to be, as Kevin Kelly once argued, a “meaningless” mirage? It may not matter. Software allows us to simulate all sorts of real-world phenomena, and there’s no reason to believe that it won’t allow us to simulate our own post-Singularity immortality. Alan Jacobs points to a new article in the Guardian that describes a forthcoming app called LivesOn, which, by analyzing your social networking activity while you’re alive, will be able to algorithmically replicate that activity in perpetuity after you expire:

The service uses Twitter bots powered by algorithms that analyse your online behaviour and learn how you speak, so it can keep on scouring the internet, favouriting tweets and posting the sort of links you like, creating a personal digital afterlife. As its tagline explains: “When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting.”

LivesOn was created as a lame, if effective, publicity stunt by a British advertising agency. But the idea is sound. As more and more of our earthly self comes to be defined by our online profiles and postings, our digital garb, then it becomes a relatively easy task for a computer to replicate that self, dynamically and without interruption, after we’re gone. As long as you keep posting, liking, and tweeting, spewing links to funny GIFs and trenchant longform texts, circulating the occasional, digitally fabricated instagram photo or vine video, your friends and acquaintances will never need know that your body has shuffled off the stage. For all social intents and purposes — and what other intents and purposes are there? — you’ll live forever. I update, therefore I am.

Who’s to say, for that matter, that most of the presences on social networks aren’t already dead, their ongoing existences merely simulated by software? Would you really know the difference?

Image: Detail from Parmigianino’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.”

7 thoughts on “Simulating the singularity

  1. Joan of Argghh!

    It’s low-hanging fruit to say so, but if this is possible, then why do we need Obama? His speeches and interactions overlay each other in a verbal and linguistic rhythmn robotic enough to make the Singularity reject them for their consistency. They lack the “human” feel of diversity, growth, and spontaneity.

  2. Alan Jacobs

    Re: your last paragraph, Nick, this is why I keep thinking about something Jaron Lanier writes in You Are Not a Gadget: “But the Turing test cuts both ways. You can’t tell if a machine has gotten smarter or if you’ve just lowered your own standards of intelligence to such a degree that the machine seems smart. If you can have a conversation with a simulated person presented by an AI program, can you tell how far you’ve let your sense of personhood degrade in order to make the illusion work for you?”

  3. Tim

    This idea reminds me of a story by J.G. Ballard called “The Time-Tomb.”

    In Ballard’s story, the Tomb-Robber, upon seeing, the dead-in-life-but-still-digitally-simulated-woman falls “deeply” in love with the alien’s digital life/image and purposefully allows himself to be apprehended by the authorities because his own life experience is so de-valued by his desire for the synthetic image. Ballard suggests that life itself is deemed inferior to that which is presented by the digital machine. He suggests that to present idealized images as being real is to diminish our sense of the physical world. The act of presenting simulation as reality is an act that diminishes human experience! Is our experience of living being distorted by the ongoing absorption of digitized multimedia synthetic experience? When we teach young children using simulations as real life, does the child learn to be dissatisfied with reality? Ballard thinks so. And so do I. But then I might not be real.

  4. Greg Lindsay

    Once again, William Gibson called it — LivesOn’s Twitter bots would are the prototype of “Neuromancer’s” Dixie Flatline…

  5. Martin C.

    To believe that a machine is alive because it can replicate our body functions or to believe that an artificial person has awareness because it’s actually programmed to have a conversation is as wrong as to think that a humans will never fly because we have no wings or to believe that ‘reality’ is only the matter that we can perceive with our senses.

    Btw, great comments.

  6. Daniel C.

    Nice. This is the same feeling I get when I walk in on a roomful of friends 5 hours into a Walking Dead marathon, staring blankly into the screen in total silence. It suddenly starts to seem like the zombie apocalypse has already happened.

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