Last week, I considered what the technical challenges are to creating digital scans of human brains in order that deceased people might be ‘resurrected’ in a virtual world – an idea which forms the setting for my upcoming novel, Beside an Open Window. But what would existence be like for these resurrected brains? What would they do? What would it be like to live in a digital world and only be able to look back into the real one, as though through a window?
In Beside an Open Window, the metaverse of sixty years from now is envisaged as a wholly photorealistic environment that looks indistinguishable from the real world. Given the pace of computer graphics development over the last few years, this part of the proposition seems very uncontroversial; indeed, the gold-rush on virtual reality technology that appears to be in play right now – with Facebook the latest large company to jump on this particular bandwagon in its acquisition of the Oculus Rift – would suggest that visual immersion is considered the new holy grail of online interaction.
All well and good if you’re a flesh-and-blood human only looking in on a virtual world, but if that world is the only thing that exists for you then you’re going to need more than just visual stimulation in order to feel anything approaching complete. As I mentioned previously, our brains receive input from the external and internal world far more complex than the notion of ‘five senses’ would suggest. We might consider the notion of ‘touch’ to be straightforward, for example, but is not the experience of sensing temperature through our skin qualitatively different from the sensation of sensing a surface to see if it is rough or smooth? Also, how would you describe sensations such as a full stomach or a headache in such terms?
In Beside an Open Window, digital humans (I read a fascinating article recently by GeorgeDvorsky, in which he discusses futurist Robin Hanson’s thinking on the subject; Hanson refers to digital humans as brain emulations, or ‘ems’) can see and hear, they can feel surface texture and pressure, and they have the sense of proprioception that enables them to move about in a co-ordinated fashion (that’s the sense that enabled you to detect when your finger was almost at your nose in last week’s article). They have no sense of taste or smell, however – eating and drinking is not possible – and are unable to sense temperature. They also have no internal senses so they can no longer feel any sort of internal discomfort such as indigestion or muscle fatigue, nor internal pleasure such as feeling (mildly) drunk or the sensation of orgasm.
This might seem like a small price to pay for an indefinitely extended existence, but it’s important to consider just how fundamental these sensations are to the experience of being human. Such activities as eating, drinking and having sex might ultimately only occupy a small portion of our total existence time, but our internal sensations are constantly with us and form a huge part of our mental state on a moment-by-moment basis. What would anxiety feel like, for example, without a rapidly beating heart or a knot in the stomach? What would relaxation feel like without that sense of your body being in a state of comfortable balance? How would you know what mood you were in without these associated physiological sensations learned over a lifetime of real-life existence? Would you even experience different moods any more? The approach I take in Beside an Open Window is to assume that the brain projects a ‘phantom body’ in the same way that amputees experience phantom limbs, that specific neural outputs to the body have become so conditioned to the associated neural inputs that the outputs now trigger the inputs even though there is no longer a body attached to them (in other words, the mental component of anxiety is so commonly associated with the physiological component that the one triggers the neural inputs of the other). This is pure speculation on my part and might not be even remotely true. Life in the total absence of internal sensation might ultimately be completely intolerable.
But the brain is uniquely flexible in its ability to adapt to new environments and might just surprise us. Assuming we are able to adapt in this way, then, what might we do in the metaverse once we’re there posthumously and, in particular, how would we make money? Whilst life in the metaverse might be cheaper than in the real world, with no food and utility costs to cover, that’s not to say there won’t be any costs at all. You’ll still have a carbon footprint that will need to be paid for and the price of virtual land might get pushed up if everyone wants the mansion of their dreams to live in. You might also have dependents back in the real world to look after.
Whatever metaversian job opportunities exist, there will also be plenty of jobs that deceased, digital humans (DDHs) could be capable of back in the real world. There’s no reason why secretaries and personal assistants couldn’t be DDHs; programmers could be DDHs, lawyers and accountants could be DDHs, IT support could be DDHs (no great change there). Elements of teaching and medicine could be carried out by DDHs. Sales and customer service departments for large corporations – the future equivalent of today’s call centres – could be staffed in their entirety by DDHs. Only the jobs that require people to go outside and manipulate physical things – tradespeople, nurses, front line police, etc – would be safe from DDH competition, though their managers might not be. And you thought automation and immigration were the biggest threat to your jobs.
DDHs won’t only be attractive to real life employers because they’ll cost less, they’ll also be attractive because they’ll be faster. There’s no reason why an emulated brain couldn’t be sped up significantly for all or part of its existence. Programmers, for example, could be run at many times their normal speed so that more work can be done in less time – an attractive option for the programmers themselves if they can switch in and out of speeded up time without noticing anything different themselves (an arrangement could be made, for example, where workers turn up on the hour, do what feels to them like a full day’s work and then finish an hour later in real time with more or less a whole twenty-four hours off before their next shift starts). Or you could take a bunch of world-class scientists, speed them up a thousand times and then give them fifty years in a sealed-up metaverse to solve humanity’s problems.
The question is likely to arise, naturally, on what sort of rights DDHs have. Would they be recognised as living in their own right? Would they get the vote in real world elections (would they have their own representatives in government)? Would the intentional deletion of a brain scan be regarded in the same manner as murder? Could two DDHs get married? Could a DDH get married to a living human being? If a person is married to someone in real life before they die, is it the assumption that they remain married once activated as a DDH? What if the brain scan was created before the couple met?
If someone dies because of an accident they caused and in which other people also died, would some sort of sentencing need to be carried out against the DDH on its activation, even though its scan was created before the incident (potentially, years before)? What would a metaverse prison look like? If a murderer was sentenced to life imprisonment in real life, could there also be a digital life component to their sentence so that a thousand years really does mean a thousand years?
There might be the temptation to activate your brain scan in the metaverse before you die in real life and put it to work whilst you enjoy the qualities of the physical world – they won’t, after all, be there for you forever. Would this make DDHs slaves? Would there be legislation against such activity? More generally, how would people get along with the digital replicas of themselves? Which of the two of you would be regarded as the most authentic ‘you’? Would you both be partnered to the same person if the copy was made and activated whilst you were in a relationship?
What if you someone activated two copies of their brain in the metaverse instead of one? Or three copies. Or a hundred. What if someone made an illegal copy of a scan and put it to use in some way?
As you can see, the issues are endless; there are many more beyond this mere handful and I am fascinated by them all… which is why I wrote Beside an Open Window. To see which of them I explore and to what end you will, of course, have to read the novel. Next weekend, however, as a precursor to the release of Beside an Open Window later in April, I’ll be publishing here a complete chapter from the book that works as a stand-alone short story and which considers digital life from the perspective of a recently deceased husband and father, and also ponders what it would be like to attend your own funeral.