Digital Immortality and the Backup Brain

Back-up brains: The era of digital immortality, a thoughtful article by Simon Parkin in BBC Future

Today’s post gets out there a ways. It’s my reaction to a thoughtful article in BBC Future about the eventual possibility of making an exact copy of your memory and mind for future generations. The article explored research efforts to do just that and the various issues that this might raise. 

Even if it were possible to digitally record the contents and psychological contours of the human mind, there are undeniably deep and complicated implications. But beyond this, there is the question of whether this is something that any of us truly want.

Digital Immortality – If not useful or desired today, then when?

The concept is interesting, but it leaves me wondering if anyone would even care about my old memories? Will I care?

Example-1: When I retired from IBM, I kept a printed copy of my contact list “just in case,” but never refer to it today, 16 years later. I even kept my old IBM ThinkPad (actually two of them, one running OS/2 and the other running Windows XP). I kept them for when I might someday want access to old emails from PROFS or Lotus Notes, and old presentations in Freelance. But how many times have I looked back on them? Not once in 16 years. There are more important things to do looking ahead rather than waste time in the past. So if I don’t much care to sift through this old content and memories, I’m not sure anyone else would.

Example-2: I did the same years later when leaving Dell, and my workstation-class Dell XPS-420 still sits idle under my desk today, gathering dust. Its lifeless monitor sits next to my 27″ Apple Thunderbolt Display. I even kept the Dell Insteon notebook PC that I used while doing “important work” at Homeowners of Texas, the nonprofit I cofounded to take on Texas homebuilders, pass new consumer protection laws, and get an abusive State agency abolished (a great David v. Goliath story). But these old computers sit completely intact and ready to run, meaning there’s no need to restore a backup of their hard drives, but I don’t even power them on.

Example-3: Now imagine if I no longer had the PC itself but just contents that were backed up somehow. Would I even be able to read the media? My first IBM PC used floppy disks. Does anyone have a floppy reader today? Floppies gave way to 3.5″ diskettes, and then CDs and DVDs and USB thumb drives and various Cloud services. In The Legacy of a Digital Generation, I wrote about future access concerns with both digital and physical media. Even paper prints fade over time or get scratched. Do you still have the negatives? Or slides?

Might our minds suffer the same fate after we’re gone? Will anyone even care about our memories? With very few exceptions, I think not. At least not until…

When Data Mining evolves into Memory Mining

Sometime before the end of the century, and after computer circuits become as small as a neuron or as powerful as the human race (predicted by futurist Ray Kurzweil), man may have the ability to access recorded memories and make sense of them to gain important new insights, assuming that man is not yet extinct. So maybe it is worthwhile to be thinking now about how to preserve our digital legacy and memory.

It’s a heady topic, but I’m interested in your thoughts below.