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Digital Cloning: The New ‘Afterlife’

By Peter V. Milo
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A still from the movie Metropolis (Photo Credit: Universum Film (UFA))

A still from the movie Metropolis (Photo Credit: Universum Film (UFA))

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SEATTLE (CBS Seattle) — The year is 2124. A little girl comes home from class with an assignment to write a report on the booming 2020s.

She turns on her computer and double clicks on an icon entitled “Grandma.” A woman’s face appears on the screen. It looks at the little girl, and smiles.

“Hi, grandma,” the little girl says. “What was it like when you were little?”

Who the little girl is talking to isn’t her actual grandmother, but a digital clone of her created with the online information her real grandmother left behind when she was alive.

And although it sounds like science fiction, it could be science fact in the near future.

Throughout their lives a person can share terabytes of information about themselves. Much of that data includes images, opinions, places they visited, and articles they read.

That information can potentially live on forever. Every public tweet is archived by the Library of Congress, and Facebook Timeline information can be downloaded, archived and accessed.

Theoretically, with all of that data, a profile can be created about a particular user. That profile could be cross-referenced with public records, news articles, and other users who also share similar information, and the basis of a digital clone is formed.

Lifenaut – started by Dr. Martine Rothblatt, the inventor of SIRIUS satellite radio – is one of several groups working to create a functioning version of a digital clone.

Its goal is to “give anyone with a computer and a connection to the internet access to a personal digital archive or mindfile,” Bruce Duncan, managing director of Lifenaut, told CBS Seattle.

Duncan says the mindfile is a collection of biographical information and images that could one day be transferred into “a cybernetic form creating an approximation of that person’s consciousness.”

The mindfile currently can use downloaded Facebook Timeline information and will be able to read Twitter feeds later this year.

Lifenaut created a few mindfiles for historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Alan Turing, and a flirtatious Hedy Lamarr. A user can communicate with the mindfiles chat-room style.

The results have been mixed. President Lincoln doesn’t seem to recognize the phrase “four score and seven years ago” and other avatars don’t seem to understand a simple yes or no response to their questions.

However, that’s ok because Duncan says “all mindfiles are meant to be a work in progress where the user regularly visits and adds info to their mindfile over time.”

“We take this broad brush approach with the understanding that in the future there will be mindware software that will use this info for pattern recognition and/or matching to assemble that person in a good enough approximation of the essential characteristics of that person.”

Duncan guesses that “within the next 10-20 years artificial intelligence mindware will become sophisticated enough to develop very interesting and entertaining interactive avatars.”

The mindware software that Lifenaut is depending on could be a descendant of a Carnegie Mellon project called NELL.

NELL stands for Never-Ending Language Learning project. It’s a piece of software that reads 500 million websites a day and queries Google up to 100,000 times a day, or about once per second.

When NELL learns a new fact or “belief,” it posts them onto a website and Twitter feed.

“The goal is to have NELL learn how to read by being able to associate ideas with each other,” Dr. Tom Mitchell, NELL’s project leader, told CBS Seattle.

Theoretically, NELL can be used to gather a person’s data. However, Dr. Mitchell said that “if there isn’t much on a person online, it won’t be able to get much information on them,” adding that a cell phone is a way to capture a personality digitally.

“I would use my iPhone as an instrument to transcribe every conversation I have, emails, and what I’m browsing, and photos,” Dr. Mitchell said. “We can get your dialogues and such, we can get the information of what you know, and what should you say next.”

There might not be a perfect way to emulate a personality, but there are a few ways to approximate it.

One way would be to pair a learning algorithm such as NELL with the prosody in a person’s voice. Prosody is the indication of moods and feelings in verbal communication.

“For example, if you talk about the Mets losing and you sound depressed, it (the digital clone) would learn to sound depressed when talking about that topic,” Dr. Mitchell said. “Does it perfectly mimic your personality? No, but it can get close.”

If digital clones are possible and inevitable, the clone would be only as complete as the information that it is given.

“If there isn’t much on a person online it won’t be able to get much,” Dr. Mitchell said. “For example, there isn’t much on me online, maybe my home page or an article or two.”

So if you don’t want your digital clone talking about that one certain night, it might be worth leaving it out of your Facebook.

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