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Martine Rothblatt’s Lifenaut Project Featured in New Scientist
Jun 13, 2010  

The Terasem Foundation, a project of IEET Trustee Martine Rothblatt, is working with IEET Senior Fellow Bill Bainbridge on capturing human personality for later instantiation. Their free Lifenaut and CyBeRev services have just received a positive review from New Scientist.

The article, by Linda Geddes, is titled ‘Immortal avatars: Back up your brain, never die’.

Here is an excerpt:

“If you can upload yourself into this digital form, it could live forever,” says Nick Mayer of Lifenaut, a US company that is exploring ways to build lifelike avatars. “It really is a way of avoiding death.”

For now, Lifenaut relies on a series of personality tests, teaching sessions and uploaded personal material such as photos, videos and correspondence. The result, Mayer says, will be an avatar that looks like you, talks like you and will be able to describe key events in your life, such as your wedding day. But how far can such technology go? How much of your personality and knowledge can be reproduced by a computer? Can we ever hope to use avatars to resurrect the dead?

Like many people, I have often dreamed of having a clone: an alternative self that could share my workload, give me more leisure time and perhaps provide me with a way to live longer. My first step on the road to immortality is to use Lifenaut’s website to create a basic visual interface with which others, hopefully including my descendants, can interact. This involves uploading an expressionless photo of myself, taken face-on. Lifenaut’s software then animates it so my face can speak, wink and blink…

This personality upload is a laborious process. The first stage involves rating some 480 statements such as “I like to please others” and “I sympathise with the homeless”, according to how accurately they reflect my feelings. Having done this, I am then asked to upload items such as diary entries, and photos and video tagged with place names, dates and keywords to help my avatar build up “memories”. I also spend hours in conversation with other Lifenaut avatars, which my avatar learns from. This supposedly provides “Linda” with my mannerisms - the way I greet people or respond to questions, say - as well as more about my views, likes and dislikes.

A more sophisticated series of personality questionnaires is being used by a related project called CyBeRev. The project’s users work their way through thousands of questions developed by the American sociologist William Sims Bainbridge as a means of archiving the mind. Unlike traditional personality questionnaires, part of the process involves trying to capture users’ values, beliefs, hopes and goals by asking them to imagine the world a century in the future. It isn’t a quick process: “If you spent an hour a day answering questions, it would take five years to complete them all,” says Lori Rhodes of the nonprofit Terasem Movement, which funds CyBeRev. “But the further you go, the more accurate a representation of yourself the mind file will become.”

So is it possible to endow my digital double with a believable representation of my own personality? Carpenter admits that in order to become truly like you, a Lifenaut avatar would probably need a lifetime’s worth of conversations with you. Nor am I sure to what extent a bunch of photos and videos can ever represent my real memories. So might there be a better way to upload your mind?
One alternative would be to automatically capture information about your daily life and feed it directly into an avatar. “Lifeloggers” such as Microsoft researcher Gordon Bell are already doing this to some extent, by wearing a portable camera that records large portions of their lives on film.

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