Caprica Puzzle: If a Digital You Lives Forever, Are You Immortal?

By Malcolm MacIver | October 5, 2010 3:09 pm

CLARICE: Zoe Graystone was Lacy’s best friend. A real tragedy for all of us. She was very special. I mean, she was brilliant.

NESTOR: At computer stuff, right? That’s my major. Did you know that there are bits of software that you use every day that were written decades ago?

LACY: Is that true? Oh, that’s amazing.

NESTOR: Yeah. You write a great program, and, you know, it can outlive you. It’s like a work of art, you know? Maybe Zoe was an artist. Maybe her work… Will live on.

From: Rebirth, Season 1.0 of Caprica

cylon1I’m excited that today Caprica is back on the air for the second half of its first season. As the show’s science advisor, I thought I’d pay homage to its reentry into our living rooms with some thoughts about how the show is dealing with the clash between the mortality of its living characters and the immortality of its virtual characters.

As Nestor says in the passage above, a great program can outlive you. It’s a clever reference to Zoe’s hacking leading to her digital self outliving her biological self. But the extent to which a piece of art can outlive you differs radically depending on what you “paint” with. Philosopher John Haugeland’s 1981 work “Analog and Analog” is full of great insights into the difference between digital and analog systems. Haugeland defines a digital device as*:

1. A set of types (for example, our alphabet; or 1 and 0s of computers),

2. A set of feasible procedures for writing and reading tokens of those types, and

3. A specification of suitable operating conditions, such that

4. under those conditions, the procedures for the write-read cycle are positive and reliable.

Using Haugeland’s criteria, if you are dealing with words, then you are dealing with a digital system. Shakespeare’s sonnets are largely as he wrote them, and they will remain this way for an eternity, perhaps with small adjustments to account for changes in English (though there will always be versions in the original form for scholars). Because the alphabet is a set of types (1), and we have a set of feasible procedures for writing and reading tokens of those types (2), and a specification of suitable operating conditions (e.g., light to read and write by!) (3), such that under those conditions, we can read the sonnets and copy them in a reliable fashion without error (4). So the work of Shakespeare will live on, potentially eternally, because it is enmeshed in digital system (written language) in which perfect copying is possible. We don’t complain, when we read a reprint of his work, that we are not “reading the original”—it is the original.

Now contrast this with a Rembrandt painting, which can never be perfectly copied; so, once—despite the efforts of art conservationists—it finally turns to dust, this Rembrandt painting will be no more. Eventually all of his work will be lost this way. Clearly, a Rembrandt does not fit the criteria for a digital device.

An interesting analog to these concepts is the idea that biological aging represents the accumulation of small errors of copying DNA over the course of your lifetime. If the copying was perfect, again we’d be a digital device—and eternal.

In Caprica, Zoe’s and Tamara’s switch from their biological to virtual selves leaves a lot for their biological family and friends to ponder, similar to questions that characters in BSG had about the 12 human-looking cylon models. Are these virtual selves “real”? Do they have a “soul”? How does the lack of aging, and impossibility of death, affect relationships between digital and analog selves? How can a digital self inhabit both the virtual worlds of Daniel Graystone’s creation and the analog world? These are some questions that will continue to lurk beneath the surface as we see the stories of series 1.5 unfold. Stay tuned!

* This definition underlies why your computer can do billions of operations a second flawlessly. We push the silicon in your computer hard—we make a lot of energy run through the underlying transistors so that they will faithfully stay in a determinate state representing zero, or representing one, with a set of procedures for reading and writing those states that are “positive and reliable.” (Analog very large scale integrated or AVLSI chips exploit the fact that when you don’t slam so much energy into transistors, you get very interesting nonlinear behaviors that can be exploited to do complex calculations.)

Reference: Haugeland, J. (1981). Analog and Analog. Philosophical Topics, 12, 213-226.


Comments (18)

  1. It’s funny, I very much would like to say no, that you don’t live forever, that it is a copy of you, but as a materialist and non duelist, I’m forced to say that yes, “you” would be immortal.


  2. I don’t think that a “digital you” would be you at all. “You can’t escape your instantiation” – a digital you would have none of the drives of the human you. It might have other drives, it’s hard to know without creating an AI, but it won’t have the human ones. So, this would be a strange you, unable to understand your past actions, evaluate your current relationships and likely to have drastically different goals for the future.

  3. Beth

    What a fascinating line of thought for what it means to be original. For Shakespeare, think about the words and what they mean. You’re saying that’s the original, but are they really the exact words he used? It’s been translated and re-edited from centuries-old English hundreds of times already. Is that original? It’s not the physical original manuscript, but the idea. And even if the original Rembrandt will inevitably someday be lost, we’ll have photographs and X-rays and who knows what to keep the image–the idea–of the painting around. How is that different from a many-times republished Shakespeare?

    I have never seen Caprica but maybe I’ll have to start watching!

  4. Malcolm MacIver

    Thanks all for the great ideas… Marshall, although “digital you” was linked in my post to a virtual character, purely disembodied, it seems very much like a digital you could be present and embodied. If you watch Caprica, that is in fact what is going on with Zoe’s inhabiting of the physical robot. It’s also what is going on with any of the models of cylons identical to humans in BSG, as I mentioned in this post For those cylons, their digital nature is made explicit in the show, since they say that when they die they will be uploaded to the Resurrection Ship, to be downloaded to a new body (interestingly, it may even be the case that they have to be embodied to exist, even though “they” are in some sense digital).

    So I’m not so sure you can’t escape your instantiation. What needs to be the case to have some sense of convincing continuity of self between instantiations is that your next instantiation be similar in the relevant regards. If this includes having a body, so be it. If it includes having a body with blond hair and six pack abs (if that’s what you have now), and an inexhaustible appetite for asparagus, so be it. Being digital is incompatible with being corporeal only if you argue that a body cannot be digital. But look: we can generate increasingly sophisticated artifacts by sending a purely digital file to 3D printers. Body parts are even being 3D printed these days. There are issues here about not confusing the map (representation) with the territory (physical instantiation of that representation), but none that I see means that you can’t have a digital body for all intents and purposes.

    Beth – I think there is a very substantial difference. Let’s not use Shakespeare, since we might quibble about the authenticity of the original, translations, etc. Let’s suppose we have an officially sanctioned copy of one of the Henry Potter books. We can surely have as many copies as we like. People will not quibble that their hardback version is closer to the original than their Kindle edition. It’s because it’s a digital system. A Rembrandt painting does not fall into this category. Even if I make a perceptually indistinguishable copy, it would be correctly called a copy (or a forgery, depending on the context!). Seeing that copy would not be equivalent to seeing the original item. Rembrandt did not work in a digital medium. There is no agreed upon translation of what he worked on into the types in Haugeland’s definition above.

    Keep the fascinating comments coming!

  5. Pistachio Wildebeest

    Would you still be you? Are you now immortal? etc.

    The universe does not provide definitive answers to those questions, because the questions themselves involve high-level concepts of personal identity that are not sufficiently well defined. Whether the digital copy is the same person depends upon how you define a person, and these definitions are largely arbitrary; you can therefore choose a definition of personal identity which makes the answer to the question either “yes” or “no.”

    If you want to live forever as an immortal digital copy, you therefore choose an arbitrary definition of personal identity which makes such a thing possible!

    As for “do they have a soul,” the term soul is so poorly defined as to be completely meaningless. I have no idea what might be meant by it. Depending upon how one chooses to define the word soul, people, digital copies of people, goldfish and geraniums all may or may not have souls. More sensibly, I don’t see any need to use the word at all; it’s like asking if digital copies have hopjlakins.

  6. Vincent Archer

    “a digital you would have none of the drives of the human you. ”

    The question is, why? Unless you subscribe to the Penrose school that attempts to paint the human mind as an emergence of fully quantum effects which would be intractable to reproduce in digital form, the human mind is driven by a number of relatively basic hardwired systems. The human mind seems to be nothing more than the expression of a slightly reconfigurable ensemble of neural systems, and your moods and drives arise out of the interaction of base chemicals (neurotransmitters) and the configuration of your neural pathways.

    There’s very little reason (again, unless you’re a Penrosian) to think that you cannot emulate those things in software, meaning that the digital mind would have similar mental drives. Notably if you’re trying to express a specific mind, as opposed to making a brand new intelligence (a digital you would reproduce your drives, an A.I. might not require them).

    In the case of Zoe, it might be correct. We haven’t the details on how Digital Zoe was made; the implications in the show are that it was done using her medical scans which implies that her biology might have driven the building of the virtual brain, into which the memories of Flesh Zoe were impressed. That would be completely different from what you find in other SF-nal things, where you have things like “reconstructions” which are built from public data and yield “minds” that would have produced the same correspondance and behaviour. Those things aren’t digital instances of “your” mind, they’re counterfeit you.

    (common examples: the virtual Albert – Einstein – of Pohl’s Gateway series, the “personality faxes” from Wil Mc Carthy’s Flies From Amber, etc)

  7. No, your copy will not be you, but IT will think it’s you. However, from the moment of its creation it will diverge from being you. But just as in Caprica where the virtual is downloaded into a “real” (I prefer “our world”) body, you can visit your digital self (via a temporary virtual “body”), in its server/universe. Well, at least until the “real” you dies, which it will. The “virtual” you will live forever, barring an Al-Q. EMP bomb.

    Recommended reading: “Dream Park” by Larry Niven, and pretty much everything by Greg Egan. Each presents different aspects of virtualness. I forget whom, but either Iain M. Banks or Alastair Reynolds has a new novel or novella out on this very theme.

    Thank you for this post, man. Its inspired a new sci fi short story in my brain (where the real “you” visits the digital “you” in its world), and the six-pack abs lines was very funny. 🙂

  8. Chris

    Our brains are analog, even if we do the exact same thing, there will be little differences between our actions and thoughts. Perhaps it is the errors and non-reproducibility of our thoughts that make us human.

  9. Dunc

    It’s funny, I very much would like to say no, that you don’t live forever, that it is a copy of you, but as a materialist and non duelist, I’m forced to say that yes, “you” would be immortal.

    Funny, because it looks to me like you can only claim that a copy of you is the actual same thing as the original you if you subscribe to a non-materialst, dualist view in which “you” refers to some abstract pattern of organisation, rather than a specific lump of thinking meat.

    Suppose we could create a perfect duplicate of you. Would “you” then exist in two places simultaneously? Would “you” see the world through two different pairs of eyeballs at the same time?

  10. Nullius in Verba

    Is your past self the ‘same person’ as your present or future self? Different memories, different skills, (subtly) different personality. Even a different weight and physical constitution. When you was a two year old child, virtually none of the instantiation you inhabit now was yet present. Are you the same person?

    At the sub-atomic level, every particle undergoes a continual dance of creation and destruction – virtual particles created and destroyed and changing identity in a cloud of activity. Each instant of time is glued to the next instant by means of a mutually interfering superposition of particles and paths, a wave of possibility. Are the particles of the universe the same particles as those that are in it the next? Or is it like a wave passing across water, where the ripple from a dropped stone moves across the lake but the water does not? A moving pattern in a stationary substrate?

    If you think of meme’s as individual entities, that reproduce, and spread from mind to mind, that inhabit brains and direct them to their own purposes; is not a mind a society of memes? What if memes got together in partnership and decided to build a brand new mind between them?

    What if you record a mind and let it play through the same simulated scenario again and again. When it always makes the same choices, are its choices free each time? What if you took a captured copy of your enemy’s mind, and ran it through the simulations to devise a plan that they could not foil? Or that of a friend, to help them succeed?

    If you lose you memory totally, are you the same person? If you lose it partially? If you experience false memories? What if you merged two minds so you could remember both pasts as if they happened to you? What if you split a mind into two, each remembering a part? Can you paste in years of training and experience in an instant? Can you edit your own mind to give yourself the personality traits you need to succeed, or to be happy? Will there ever be fashions in mindsculpting?

    Would it be a just punishment for a crime to paste the memories of the victim into the criminal’s brain, or does that simply double the harm done? If a criminal commits a crime, and then their mind is substantially altered with the memory of committing the crime erased, is it still just to punish them, or are they a different and now innocent person? If you paste in a criminal past into an innocent person’s mind, is it then just to punish them? If not crime, then how about legal contracts, and ownership? Can you add spies, or guards, or ‘guardian angels’ to a person’s mind? A friend to talk to for the lonely and isolated?

    What if you ran a mind on a quantum computer? (assuming brains aren’t.) What would it feel like to factorise a thousand digit number in your head? Or to play chess? To consider an unimaginable number of options and pathways in superposition, leaping instantly to the perfect solution? Suppose your machine mind ran a hundred times faster than flesh and blood, so you could plan, refine, and coordinate your every word and action. Or split your attention across multiple bodies, all acting in concert? Would normal humans be able to beat you, when you could out-think them at every turn? Would they want to?

    Sounds like a fun job you have there. 🙂

  11. We don’t know how to make an AI. I remember Marvin Minsky circa 1975 saying it was only a matter of more computer power and a few years should do it. That was about 25 years into the AI project; here we are at 50 years and the grand goal seems further away now than it did then. AI has of course an abysmal record at predicting its ability to do things, and when it does succeed, it tends to be by abandoning any effort to mimic the human mind. So, while I am not a Penrosian, I regard the notion that biological intelligence is congruent to a Turing machine as certainly unproven, and quite likely untrue. If it is untrue, if we are not just biological Turing machines, then we have do not have good grounds for saying that our brains can be adequately simulated by Turing machines. (Please note that that does not require any new physics.)

    Further, we don’t really have any deep understanding of how emotions come from “the interaction of base chemicals (neurotransmitters) and the configuration of your neural pathways,” if that is indeed where they come from. Nor, for that matter, do we have any idea of how to “read” a brain, or even if there are quantum effects that would prevent a complete reading of the brain’s state. If you believe in the Chomskian idea that the understanding of human languages is largely hardwired, we don’t know what that hardwiring is or how to replicate it, either. Now, while I am not a believer in “new physics of the gaps” (i.e., that every thing we don’t yet understand implies new physics of some sort), it does seem dubious to make deep assumptions about systems we have so little understanding of (for example, that complicated quantum mechanical systems can be adequately simulated numerically in polynomial time).

    Now, I do think that after a few more decades or centuries of effort we might be able to create a truly intelligent machine, but I also suspect that if / when we do we will not understand exactly how and why it is intelligent (this is especially likely if intelligence is some sort of emergent property), and will likely find that it is radically different from human intelligence – different enough that we may find it difficult to communicate with it in any deep fashion (Chomskian linguistics, again).

    If you put all of this together, I think that to assume that a digital instantiation of a human, with or without a body of any sort, will have the same personality as the original is to be … quite optimistic. Let’s leave it at that.

    That doesn’t mean, by the way, that it wouldn’t be possible to take the masses of electronic interactions that a modern, computer literate, resident of (say) the US or EU or Japan leaves behind, collate all of that, and create an avatar that would _seem_ to be original persons, especially in email or SMS, but also in audio and video. (In other words, it should be possible to build an engine that could synthesize a realistic response to some new question from the hundreds of thousands of real responses to previous questions a person will build up over a lifetime on-net.) I expect to see something like that fairly soon, maybe first as something for the bereaved. It might respond like the departed, but of course it would not _be_ the departed in any sense. (I actually fear what sorts of mischief spammers and identity thieves could do with this technology.) This sort of technology, while interesting, is of course not likely to lead to any sort of true “digital you.”

  12. Charlie Vick

    “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work… I want to achieve it through not dying.” Woody Allen

    I really like the title of this post, (and the subsequent questions and discussion). I think it’s a bit academic whether a perfect copy of a person is a ‘real’ person (hint: yes) – though that is an interesting question nonetheless. My interest in all questions of copying people is copying that continuity of consciousness we experience.

    Of course, it’s debatable whether we even experience true continuity now, what with situations like deep sleep, anesthesia, or coma, where ‘you’ go away and come back. These discontinuities of consciousness occur, but ‘you’ still come back and you are still yourself, whatever that means.

    I think discussion of divergence above is a relevant point – given different experiences, you and your copy will grow apart. You will still have that common kernel of stable personality traits and long-term memories, but you’ll branch in different directions, given time and different experience. But if you’re not around (like Biological Zoe in Caprica), your copy has nothing to diverge from. There’s only this perfect immortal copy, which for all intents and purposes is you – or the only version of you left to keep living and evolving.

    This is problematic for my selfish desire to have some kind of continuity of consciousness. Does your consciousness make some kind of leap from biological you to digital you? How could that happen? I feel that my thoughts on this are somewhat paradoxical – when people talk about destructive uploading (biological you is disassembled and rebuilt in a digital substrate) I feel it seems more likely a continuity of consciousness would occur, the same way you pass out under anesthesia and wake up again later, changed and in a different place, but still yourself. This is a matter of my own personal belief, but I feel that given my experience with discontinuity of consciousness, if the copy is perfect, and I’m destructively uploaded, I’m my copy.

    On the other hand, if we non-destructively upload you, biological you wakes up and the digital you wakes up, and both experience continuity of consciousness. But biological you can die, or digital you can be deleted, and that branch of your consciousness is gone. You’re survived by another version of yourself, and that’s better than nothing. I still agree with Mr. Allen – I don’t want to live forever through my immortal copy, but by not dying.

    But I’ll take what I can get.

  13. Brian Too

    We already have clones, as perfect as anyone knows how to make them. Genetically identical twins are (relatively) common and no one thinks they are the “same” person.

    Therefore I believe that @7. Steven Colyer is correct. One day we may have the technology to create a duplicate, an ‘other’. However we are simply creating a new life in a very expensive, less fun way than the original method.

    Anyone who thinks that they will get a lost loved one back by cloning them are deluding themselves. Same goes for those shooting for personal immortality. None of the memories or experiences will be the same. Even their personality could be quite different (I believe). Your genes set the template but the development of the corporeal being is powerfully influenced by the environment and that will be, at best, a loose analog to the original person’s environment.

    At best you will wind up with a creature “inspired” by the original.

  14. Charlie Vick

    Brian –

    I don’t think anyone’s arguing that clones are the same person. But identical twins / clones are only genetic copies – there’s more to who we are than genes. Monozygotic twins start diverging in utero in some cases. Otherwise they only have their entire livetimes to diverge. But we’re not talking about copying genes. We’re talking about copying grey (and white) matter. If we’re talking about copying a person’s brain down to each of the 2^16 neurons and 2^30 synapses, glial cells, mylen sheathing levels, hormone spikes or drops in response to stimuli X, Y, and Z – this is to cloning as cloning is to a zeroxed piece of paper.

    Admittedly what we’re on about is largely just science fiction right now. Just like cloning was a decade or so ago. And admittedly there might not be continuity of consciousness between myself and a perfect copy. But it’s a different question than whether a clone is the same person – a question adequately answered by monozygotic twins (hint: no).

  15. Filip Rabuzin

    This is a great article and poses some great questions. To help you further explore the issue two other pieces of media immediately come to mind – 1. The movie “The 6th Day” and 2. The “Ghost in the Shell” movies and series.

    The former I think explores the digital/analogue conundrum and the latter takes a certain premise – that the “soul” may exist within the digital world – and goes with it.

    At the crux of the issue here I believe is as one commentator mentions above – how does one define a soul? Is it simply consciousness entwined with memories? If so is it something that can with absolute reliability be copied and transferred? If so what happens when two exact copies exist simultaneously?

  16. Malcolm MacIver

    Filip – thanks for those suggestions. I’ll check those out. Also, the discussion has continued at this post:

  17. It is funny. Even if we were able to somehow really digitally copy ourselves over to a machine that doesn’t break down. Guess what? The universe still could end as we know it destroying this machine anyway. Some 2nd or 18th or a billionth and 27th big bang happens and giant vibrating membranes bang each other again and no copy left.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar