Technology and Death, by Professor Josh Cohen

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Friday, March 3, 2017 - 17:47

Written by Professor Josh Cohen

‘The essence of who somebody is’, wrote philosopher Hannah Arendt, ‘can come into being only when life departs’. Death is what renders a life meaningful. Life being inherently unpredictable, events can always occur that change my own and others’ understanding of who and what I am. In putting an end to this unfolding story, death confers narrative shape on my life.

But a recent survey reveals 52% of us would prefer our Facebook profile to be updated after death, while a mere 35% would wish it deleted. We are evidently  no longer willing to accept the ancient and universal notion that our mortality defines our humanity, a conviction that has cut across diverse philosophies, religions and eras from time immemorial. While all animals die, it’s likely that human beings alone have a conscious and reflective relationship to the fact of their eventual death. Numerous belief systems posit that life continues in some form after death, whether as reincarnation, the immortality of the soul or the next world. But all these ideas of afterlife are founded on the knowledge that our current earthly life is finite and will come to an end. Social media and AI have set in train the inexorable decline of these basic notions of humanity, providing us with the means to survive our biological death.

Of course, human beings have always found ways to live posthumously. The means to curate and manage our public profiles, for example, existed long before Facebook and Instagram. The powerful and wealthy have always sought to use historical records, painted portraits and public monuments, as well as the endowment of philanthropic, educational and cultural institutions to shape the ways future generations remember them. But there are also many forms in which the less privileged can ‘live on’, from artistic and scientific achievement to contributions to legal, social or political change, to criminal notoriety.

But in all these scenarios, the memories and legacies of the dead are premised on the fact that they are indeed dead. Future generations can remember them and continue their work, but their capacity to act in the world as living individuals has gone. With their biological death, they cease worldly existence. 

Algorithms and AI are now changing this fundamental reality by transforming the meaning of biological death from the irreversible end of life to a mere facet of life. We might cease worldly existence but we can continue to live actively in other, virtual forms. Algorithms already aggregate and distil my life’s desires, beliefs, ambitions and even my ‘personality’ in the form of consumer habits, political actions, cultural preferences and demographic information. Through such virtual existence, computers will be able to perpetuate aspects of my behaviour and selfhood, in ever more sophisticated and intricate forms, long after my death. It is already technologically possible, if not yet legally or ethically licenced, for the dead person’s algorithmic identity to support new political initiatives, promote new bands and movies, and respond to developments in all spheres of life. 

In the decades to come, meanwhile, AI will extend and deepen these possibilities of post-biological existence in ways we can barely imagine, enabling our dead selves to think, to speak and eventually even to reassume physical form.

These developments will of course change the essential meaning of death, which will no longer be synonymous with the cessation of worldly existence. But they will by the same token change the meaning of life, for as the boundary between life and death erodes, so does the absolute distinction between them. It isn’t hard, moreover, to see how such developments provide fertile territory for the growth and dissemination of ‘fake news’, for how would a false self, unmoored from any specific worldly life, be moved to care about, or even recognise, truth?

In losing a definitive sense of our mortality, we will also lose what Arendt describes as the narrative dimension of a life, the perspective from which we can discern and discuss who a person was and what their life meant. The person reduced to the sum of their algorithmic data in life may be condemned to the purgatory of permanent virtual curation in death.

Professor Josh Cohen discusses This Way to Immortality on Sunday 5 March, part of Southbank Centre's year-long Belief and Beyond Belief festival in partnership with London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Book a Sunday Pass to attend