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Monday, September 28, 2009

The Digital Self

The idea is reminiscent of something out of a Phillip K. Dick or Isaac Asimov story but it is almost a reality. Think of your entire life on a computer. Every memory, every moment uploaded onto a server that is your life, digitized forever. Sound too far fetched?

Consider that we have our lives spread among several different systems. You have photo albums on Google or Photobucket. You have them on your home computer and CDs that you’ve burned. You have public, private, career, and educational information stored in your computer and online in your social networking sites. Your emails, conservations, tweets, texts, everything that makes up you is somewhere in the digital world. What if we were to take existing technologies and somehow aggregate all of that scattered information into one server configured strictly for you? Consider it one large “you” database. Then on another server an application sits and runs a program that creates an avatar of you using all of that stored information in the database as a profile. The application server could then run a series of engines that uses the database as a primer for who you are. In essence you exist as a fully rendered artificial representation of your natural self down to the idiosyncrasies like cracking your knuckles or grinding your teeth.

Think of being able to preserve yourself, digitally? You become sick or start to feel the effects of old age and you can pass on your memories and wisdom onto your virtual self, becoming immortal. Think Jor-El’s presence in the Fortress of Solitude within the world of Superman. Your family could still talk to you through your virtual self. You could continue to learn and experience life beyond the grave. You could become immortal.

Then, take the concept of MMORPGS and you can create a world for those avatars to live in and interact. Facebook 3D. You could play scrabble with your grandchildren or chat with other dead friends. You could get a job and earn money performing certain tasks that a computer program would automatically do. A new species of human existence could eventually come about.

Despite being a fully sentient experience we have the technology in its dismantled parts. How long before we are able to put the pieces together in the right sequence? Considering the amount of computing resources needed to accomplish such a task, it’s almost mind boggling. Ultimately, there would be a host of problems to contend with in order to have an operational virtual self. Look how bad it gets when Gmail or Twitter goes down.

Cost is one thing. Upgrades and maintenance is another. Disaster recovery would be a huge issue. It would be the virtual equivalent to a heart attack or stroke. How could you perform the necessary tasks to reboot or reformat your virtual self if you are dead? You would also have to have the necessary environment for such a system. Cold rooms, ventilation, and power would be essential to maintain yourself, electronically. The technology may be there, but the conceptualization and execution may still be decades away. But let’s imagine a world where it is a reality.

You wear a device similar to one from this article. You wear this thing around your neck. It’s a multi sensory device that records audio, video, still picture, and other sensory stimuli that you experience every day. Additionally, you have an application for your phone, computer, and what not that records transactions such as receipts, texts, calls, and emails and converts them into code. Each night you remove the device that you wear and plug it into a docking station where it downloads and updates the database as well as the application from your transactions updating the database in real time. Your online self learns those experiences like, “Ooh, I just tried a fish taco today and I don’t like them.” or “I just watched the new Harry Potter movie and I can now discuss it with my other virtual friends.”

Or, let’s take the concept into a whole new direction. I don’t have a blackberry or another smart phone so I don’t know if this is already a possibility, but how about the next generation PDA. This time, though, the Personal Digital Assistant is really just that. You take your entire set of habits and input them as rules for the online self. Money Management, Scheduling, etc. I know we do this now, so the concept doesn’t sound new. I already have direct deposit of my paycheck and automatic withdrawal on all but a couple utilities. However, that is still something you need to set up manually. What if your digital self had the logic to make those payments on particular days other than the ones you already have designated? It was a good month for work, let’s up the credit card payment 10%. The holidays are coming, let’s not pay that electric bill until the next pay day before it’s due.

You can let your online self check your scheduling and make appointments for you. Say you just had a dental appointment and you would like to schedule the next one. The digital self knows you just had an appointment because it was schedule in your calendar. It knows you prefer Saturday appointments and it has to be scheduled sixth months or more out. It checks your schedule, contacts the dentist’s office and asks for an appointment to be made at a certain date and then leaves you a message that it has been scheduled and added to your calendar.

Using the digital self database, the digital you can see receipts for the last year and plan ahead based on what you tell it to be looking for in terms of scheduling. The digital self sees that you have gone out for your anniversary to the same restaurant for the last three years. It can then ask you if you would like to make a reservation for the same time this year. Perhaps you’ve gone to two or three different ones over the year. It can give you a choice. Once you give it the go ahead, it makes the reservation, electronically, with the restaurant. It also reminds you at a preset time to get a present for different holidays or birthdays.

Now, a lot of things are contingent on this actually working. First of all, the places your digital self interact with need to be able to communicate with each other, although, a lot of restaurant and stores already have the ability to make online reservations. It’s just a matter of the digital self being able to use the web to do so. Also, I’m not sure how many doctors have the capability but it could be as easy as them having an email address for the receptionist.

Having a tool, regardless of the application, would be a huge time saver to a lot of people. Not to mention, it could do several of these transactions or tasks simultaneously. In the short run, just having apps on your smart phone that talked to each other would be a huge advancement, but of course, there are concerns . If you give a program that much control of your life it could lead to piracy and theft. Rogue applications could be made to go out and strip your identity. Not to mention, it could tweak it or clone it giving the hacker the ability to make your life hell. Also, like before, if the system crashes or goes on the fritz, the information you have stored would be lost. It would be nice if there was a backup hard drive for the table each day or week to be able to hold all your appointments, allowing you to go to a desktop or other type of computer to access that information and maybe print it out.

As much as I would love to see this become a reality, I would rather see the tech sector focus on ways to solver bigger problems in near future. The personal interaction with people we get on a daily basis is what makes us human. Not to mention, giving our lives over to an electronic device is one step closer to the evils described in The Terminator series or The Matrix. Computers making decisions for us instead of at our request is one of the basic premises of all “Evil Computers/Robots” films. Perhaps we are not ready for this type of advancement, but the ability to preserve ourselves after we die may be one step closer to immortality. I’m sure there is a philosophical debate on whether this is a wise thing and it probably questions the existence of a soul. If we exist solely online outside of ourselves it will never be the same as existing in the real world. But think of the possibilities.

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