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The Rights of Avatars

This article was adapted from a lecture given by William Sims Bainbridge, Ph.D. during the 3rd Annual Colloquium on the Law of Transbeman Persons, December 10, 2007, at the Florida Space Coast Office of Terasem Movement. Dr. Bainbridge playfully discusses his research on the rights, rules, and obligations of avatars within several 3-dimensional, virtual environments (each operating on different social planes), and how they may relate to future biological or robotic avatars.

In future, computer generated avatars will be able to take on more and more of the characteristics of their owners, until some will be second selves capable of sustaining at least some of the person’s values, thoughts and actions even after death. One way to think about the future social context for such avatars is to look at avatars today, with special attention to the technical and organizational constraints that currently limit their rights. As we begin to think through such issues, we will need to develop new terminology, and we certainly do not yet have a full or correct set of words with which to communicate about them. I have suggested that we call computer duplicates of people cyclones - cybernetic clones - in full awareness that the term has contradictory connotations. A clone is an exact copy, but a meteorological cyclone is a whirlwind that constantly changes its form. This paradox expresses my own guess about our future: We will find ways to live on after the deaths of our bodies, but in ways that entail self-transformation, multiple expressions, and creatively recrafting one’s self.

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William Sims Bainbridge Ph.D. is an IEET Senior fellow, and a prolific and influential sociologist of religion, science and popular culture. Dr. Bainbridge serves as co-director of Human-Centered Computing at the NSF.

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