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21 January, 2020 11:26:46 AM
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The digital human

The theory that humans can be digitised and live on within the digital confines of a computer-based existence has been the subject of debate
MOHAMMED ABUL KALAM, Ph.D.

The quest for immortality is as old as humanity itself, but the prospect of being able to copy the neural networks of a person's brain shifts the pursuit of perpetual life into the digital world.Immortality has been a topic of discussion since the legend of the Holy Grail. Some people have gone as far as cryogenic freezing after death in the hope that one-day science will have advanced enough to resurrect them. Others believe the route to immortality lies in the digital realm.
The theory that humans can be digitised and live on within the digital confines of a computer-based existence has been the subject of debate. But until recently, no one had taken the idea much beyond research and discussion. In the year2018, a consortium of unidentified individuals launched Virternity with the stated goal of digital life for all. A world that would be owned not by any government but by the people. This digital world, Virternity said, would remove the physical constraints upon us and the planet and usher in a completely new plane of existence. Then, without any warning, Virternity disappeared.
Back in 2001, an acquaintance who worked for Lonely Planet revealed a surprise discovery. The travel guide business had an audience of people who would buy their travel books but never travel. Lonely Planet dubbed them “virtual tourists”. Now Lonely Planet and others have become excited by tourism powered by virtual reality (VR) – both on this planet and, thanks to NASA, on others.

What is virtual tourism?In contrast to Lonely Planet’s definition, let’s consider virtual tourism to be the application of virtual reality – including augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) – to tourism.The term virtual reality is most commonly used to describe what happens when you are completely immersed in a virtual environment you can see through a headset. Enhanced forms of virtual reality allow you to interact with that environment using extra equipment, such as gloves fitted with sensors.Virtual reality is also used as a catch-all term to describe the overall spectrum of digitally mediated reality, which includes virtual reality, as well as mixed reality and augmented reality.

Augmented reality and mixed reality are computer-generated visualizations that augment our sense of the real world around us or merge the real and virtual together. We still wear a headset, but rather than blocking out the world, an AR or MR headset enables us to see visualizations within our real-world surroundings.Augmented reality and mixed reality are usually visual, but we can now get audio augmented reality, that will play audio recordings through special glasses about sites we’re looking at. There is even olfactory-augmented reality that can enhance our experience with the smell.

Moving beyond realism: Virtual reality can be more than a mirror that gives us a realistic interactive simulation of the current world: it can bring the past into the present. As Sir David Attenborough has noted: The one thing that really frustrates you in a museum is when you see something really fascinating; you don’t want to be separated from it by the glass. You want to be able to look at it and see the back of it and turn it around and so on.

The London Natural History Museum’s app Hold the World gives users a chance to move and manipulate virtual objects that are fragile, expensive or remote. Virtual tourism is also breathing new life into mythology and folklore. In Denmark, there are plans to turn a virtual reality exhibition exploring Viking history and Norse mythology into a permanent theme park. Visitors will be able to fight giants and dragons and explore a complete “Nordic” landscape. Virtual tourism can allow people to hear fresh interpretations of history. Stories can be told from the perspective of flying animals, or provide thrills and spills that appear more dangerous, immediate and visceral than the real thing. Whether virtual tourism proves to be only a pale imitation of the real thing depends on how imaginative we are.How common is virtual tourism?Given the expense and complexity of virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality arguably have more potential for virtual tourism.

Wi-Fi, which is required for many virtual tourism experiences, is now commonplace and many people do have their own devices. But the content must be tailored to specific devices – smartphones can overheat from processing so much data, and the size of tablets can make them unwieldy.  The number of exciting technological showcases is matched by the number of failed or broken equipment and deserted VR centers. Hyped promises proliferate – apparently, every year is the year that VR, AR, and MR will breakthrough.

Yet any VR software and hardware currently full of promise seems to get old very, very, quickly. If we are to move past one-hit AR wonders such as Pokémon Go, we need scalable yet engaging content, stable tools, appropriate evaluation research, and robust infrastructure.Formats such as WebVR and Web XR promise to supply content across both desktops and head-mounted displays, without having to download plugins. But before we see virtual tourism become widespread, we need to change our preconceptions about what virtual reality is. Let’s not limit VR experiences to recreations of the real world, instead let’s open our minds to history, mythology and fresh perspectives from real people.

The digital human: Although the future evolution of humanity is much discussed and conjectured, perhaps nobody had taken it quite as seriously as this. In its infancy, Virternity seemed concerned with the launch of a new digital currency, the Virgie, by which it proposed to fund its endeavor. An interesting point is that the creators of Virternity were so concerned with ensuring public ownership that very few people even know or knew who exactly they were. Their reasoning was apparently to prevent governments and their agencies from subsuming their interests with corporate and other less desirable aims. But being anonymous also has its advantages if a company wants to slide into the shadows, as appears to have been the case.

The biggest question is whether it is even possible for a human, or any living being for that matter, to be digitized in the first place. Therein lies the dichotomy of two different schools of thought.

Philosophy versus mind uploading: Those who would align themselves with thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze and Henri Bergson believe there is a higher consciousness above the physical persona or body. Such philosophical thinking rests on the idea of duality - the mind and the body are not the same. Therefore, it would seem impossible to digitize a human. How can one put the essence of a human spirit into a computer, almost like a genie into a bottle?

Conversely, several prominent scientists and neurosurgeons contend that the physical is all there is. If one can copy the brain of a human in digital form then the rest is easy. Copying the brain is not particularly simple, though. Proposals include making thousands of micro-thin slices of a brain and copying the neural network revealed.

To do this, a machine would need to be constructed that can make these slices, and then a willing volunteer would need to be found. These would be physical slices from a brain preserved before death. That’s the drawback. In fact, a startup, Nectome, has been proposing to do just that and preserve our brain until the day it can be digitized.

The person, or at least the contents of their brain, would ultimately be transferred to a computer, and thus remain alive or perhaps be reborn. Experiments have been undertaken on scanning a mouse brain but the breakthrough of digitizing the entirety of even a mouse brain has not happened.  What the future might hold: Moving on from the mechanics that might digitize us all, what would await humanity with digital immortality? Virternity said that great scientists and artists could pursue their careers for centuries, and we need never say goodbye to our loved ones.  The demand for planetary resources would be severely reduced to only that needed for the physical humans left on the planet and of course the computers holding the rest of us. The planet itself might return to a more natural state. We ourselves would be free of famine, pestilence, and disease, and could pursue whatever life we wanted, until the end of time.

Perhaps these sound like admirable goals, a utopian dream. But if humans were unleashed into this apparently digital world, would we take advantage of the freedom or simply go about reproducing a digital hell on earth? And what about digital viruses and other distortions of the virtual world itself?

We already have the experience of worlds such as Second Life, a highly successful virtual world.Second Life explained. Virternity would have been the first wholly immersive endeavor to replace the physical reality with a purely digital one. Once digital, there probably would be no going back.Other important questions arise. How much computing power would we need to run Virternity? Where would it be based and how can we ensure that nobody will simply just switch us all off or press delete?

Perhaps these questions never will be answered or at least not by Virternity as it was. Perhaps a new phoenix will arise from their ashes or someone else will take up the torch. But for now, it seems we will have to wait for a digital utopia to become a fact rather than fiction.

The writer is Former Head, Department of Medical Sociology, Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control & Research (IEDCR),  Dhaka, Bangladesh

 

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman

Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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