Posthumous Messages in Interactive Bottles

For a great deal this post is an extension to my earlier post, The Ghost Leaving the Shell. There I discussed how a system designer leaves an echo of their “ghost” in the design. You might like to read that before reading this entry, but you should be able to understand this post without it too. Both of these entries are actually in the very core of this blog, discussing the question of whom we are interacting with, when using digital services.

The remake of Total Recall movie, once again featured a personal message in the form of an interactive hologram. The idea is that you interview the hologram for the information that was sent to you. Also in I, Robot, Dr. Lanning had left, before his death, a holographic note to the murder investigators, where the message was something rather of a riddle. Finally, at least, the hologram confirmed to the main character: “That, detective, is the right question.” This functionality is already familiar from the movie Superman in 1978[1], if not earlier. In my earlier post, The Ghost Leaving the Shell, I discussed how inefficient and unpractical I find such messages in Interactive bottles.

Thinking zombieJanet H. Murray in her book Inventing the Medium[2], discusses the “companion model” of interaction, where the user perceives the digital system as a personified companion: “Computer environments can become so familiar to us that they seem like an intimate friend who can complete our sentences and whose separate thinking we see as clearly as our own.” “The challenge for designers is to exploit the magic without triggering the rage [of when we consider them being mean personalities.]” Murray notes the importance of the designer of companion like system to predict what the user might want in each and any conceivable situation, expect the user to indicate a request along the lines of the predictions and then have the system perform accordingly. The interaction is thereafter scripted, and the system can even script the user by steering them to ask the right questions – which is where the devices in Total Recall and I, Robot are either lacking in design, or being absolutely ingenious, as the user comes up with the precisely right questions with essentially invisible scripting.

I perceive not only the ones with some specific companion model of interaction, but all computer applications basically as a messages in digital bottles. As I discussed in The Ghost Leaving the Shell, the programmers build their own ghost in the shell of the application, and then they give that “echo” away for the users to use. At times they can notice that the echo has clear cracks and failures that they could fix, and they revisit to improve the ghost. And then again, the user is left with the interface, trying to find the right questions to get the answers they need. If the user interface is good, this will be easy and feel natural to the user.

An interactive discussion agent could be a usable interface for something like Google search or Wikipedia, where the information space is so wide that it is not expected to be completely given to the user on one go. Murray in her book considers the Ask Jeeves service[3], where the idea is precisely to ask natural questions from a web search engine. (As a curiosity, we have a fuss in the (social) media, as a young person found their grandmother formatting Google queries with all the formal politeness. [4]) For a private message, the interactive agent should basically list all the topics they are given to deliver and ask, in which order would the recipient wish to hear them. Upon selection, the hologram should explain the whole topic, as given in the message and then ask for the next selection. The hologram may be asked to repeat something that the recipient failed to hear or understand, and there could be some storage of definitions for concepts that the sender thinks that the recipient might need explaining of, but not necessarily. In these cases, the hologram should suggest these definitions, if an involved part of the message is being asked to be repeated, or if the recipient appears confused.

To return back to the Superman movie, where Superman’s father has left him a message. After introducing himself, father prompts: “We shall try to find the answers together. So, my son. Speak.” The first question from Superman is: “Who am I?” So the authors of the story would appear to find it that the foremost interest for people to talk with their ancestry is to define their own selves, rather than to ask questions about the ancestors themselves. Why not ask: “What happened to you?” Here it really appears that for the father it was important to leave a legacy for the child, and for the child it was important to receive it to somehow complete one’s own self. A post-Freudian could consider this at best as a resolution of an oedipus complex, where the child becomes emancipated, learning every last thing the parent can offer for personal growth.

Typically we treasure photographs of our late loved ones. We watch them to remember important events, either learned of them or lived through with them. Human memory is lossy, and benefits from things, such as photos, helping to give associating stimulus. Lately it’s been also possible for us to see and hear past events, video recorded by mobile phones and other easily accessible digital devices. We can also visit their social media profiles and find memories there. These are all more and more vivid and intimate mementoes of the past. The next step could be pseudo-intelligence, where computers learn patterns of (digital) behaviour and synthesise new activity. All the time we are expanding the possibilities of what we can put inside the digital bottle.

There is a recent documentary in Youtube from BBC Three from May 2016, titled: “Rest in Pixels: Life after Digital Death”[5], which essentially discusses digital legacies, what remains after us in blogs and such (after the ghost leaves the shell) and how to upload a mind into a computer – as dreamed of by posthumanists[6]. Among other similar things, the documentary shows, how in the Terasem Movement Foundation project, Bruce Duncan has designed a “mind file” based concept for Dina48, who also has an animatronic physical avatar, the digital legacy of the person is very similar to the holographic interactive messages. One can ask it brand new questions and it will answer with new, synthesised answers, that feel like it was the original person answering.

One ethical problem posthumanism has, in uploading conscientiousnesses into computer systems as mind clones, is related to a question about the Star Trek transporter, which “beams people from one place to another.” Assuming that the transport actually only would build a copy of a person at the destination and then would disintegrate the original, is the copy still the same person? And what if the original is not disintegrated? Why is the disintegration not a murder? When has the ghost left the original shell and landed on the new one?

Some people want to just leave behind a legacy in the form of a library, and be allowed to pass away as a person, Dina48 says on the documentary: “This makes me so sad, to think of all that loss. I hope all that lost information about those people can be recovered. I hope they can be brought back somehow.” According to the UN Declaration of Human Rights[7], “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”, but how about the right to die and disappear? Maybe it is partially in: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”, but rights of the dead are not explicitly standing out anywhere. What rights do we have to keep someone’s ghost alive in a bottle? What rights does the ghost in the bottle have – should it still be considered as a person, to whom the human rights apply? What rights do we have to disappear once and for all, once we die? This desire exists in people, as exemplified, for instance in the Something Positive web comic of 17.6.2016[8]: Davan: “He’s developing an implant that deletes your browser history, email, and text messages when your heart stops.” Lawrence: “The check’s [which I’ll give as an investment for this project] amount should have five zeros. Seven if I get the first working model.”

What are the psychological causes, and all the consequences of such idea, where everyone could live eternally as posthumans, remains still for the science fiction writers to fantasize, as well as for the scientists and designers of new technology to consider.

As a final reference, I give you Scott Adam’s Dilbert strip from 26.6.2016[9], where Wally and Dilbert discuss on their long-term plans, and Dilbert explains: “I plan to use brain imaging technology to map my mind. Then I’ll create a digital copy of myself to live forever in a software simulation. – Unless I already did.”

[1] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0078346/

[2] Murray, Janet H.: “Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice”, 2012, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

[3] http://www.askjeeves.com/

[4] Popichak, Alexander: “Grandma’s polite search gets answer from Google”, Upgrūv, 16.6.2016http://www.upgruv.com/grandmother-google-please-thank-you-polite-1862458372.html, referred to on 27.6.2016

[5] “Rest in Pixels: Life after Digital Death”, BBC Three, 2016, https://ww.youtube.com/watch?v=W1KswKZxtaA, referred to on 27.6.2016

[6] “Posthuman”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posthuman, referred to on 27.6.2016.

[7] “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/, referred to on 27.6.2016.

[8] R.K. Milholland, Something Positive, 17.6.2016, http://somethingpositive.net/sp06172016.shtml, referred to on 27.6.2016.

[9] Adams, Scott, Dilbert 26.6.2016, http://dilbert.com/strip/2016-06-26, referred to on 27.6.2016

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