I'm working on a story on the Terasem Movement's Lifenaut project and since you're one of the most vocal critics of both Terasem and Transhumanism in general, I thought I'd see if you'd be willing to share some thoughts. I've read some of your critiques of Terasem, but have a few things still on my mind: 1) You've criticized the fact that Martine Rothblatt talks about software-based life and consciousness uploading as if they're real and inevitable. But Terasem is at least actually trying to build a system for creating simulations of people. A) Do they at least get points for trying, rather than just talking? B) Is there anything wrong with doing research to try to prove their "hypothesis"? 2) Terasem isn't charging people for Lifenaut, or selling any products -- so are they really harming anyone? 3) Have you followed the progress, or lack thereof, of Terasem's over the years? It looks like Lifenaut has been around since at least 2010, maybe 2007. Do you know whether the avatars have gotten any better since then? 4) Apart from the desire for actual immortality through consciousness uploading, part of what Lifenaut may offer is something more like an interactive archive or scrapbook of a person's thoughts and activities that could be left behind for decedents, or perhaps future anthropologists. Do you have any thoughts on whether these animated avatars are actually a good way to achieve something like that?My answers to these questions were the following:
First, of course I do not give people credit for trying to create "simulated persons" and "simulated life." What "life" and "person" mean as terms are distorted by the language these futurists use to describe their assumptions and goals. That they are actually "trying" to do impossible things they wouldn't try to do if they actually understood the phenomena in question is no more worthy than it would be worthy for a math ignoramus to actually try to square a circle -- as, of course, many cranks have indeed idiotically tried to do historically. The "trying" is evidence only of the depth of their misunderstanding, not of their worthy diligence. Worse, the discussion of lives and people on these false and reductive terms is abetting a more general tendency in "technology" circles to get these questions systematically wrong -- to call artifacts like phones and homes "smart" when they are not, to treat devices like cars and programmable coffee makers as "living" and as "personalities" when they are not. Since lives and people and intelligence are truly enormously valuable and also vulnerable it actually matters that they be recognized and supported on their real terms. I am a teacher, and when I point out the errors and confusions in computational misunderstandings of life and of selfhood I am doing what I am always doing -- contributing to the clearer understanding of things that matter. This is an end in itself.
Second, it is not true that Terasem is not selling anything. They are selling their "movement" and their "belief" to scientifically illiterate, credulous people, many of them especially vulnerable to such a scam because they are personally afraid of dying. I occasionally receive e-mails from some of these people, angry at my critiques of their belief system. Needless to say, anyone who offers up arguments to the scrutiny of the public properly does so in the expectation that this will provoke criticism. But Believers who are seeking techno-immortality for themselves or who have formed irrational protective attachments to non-existing robotic or software quasi-personages can sometimes feel personally threatened or even targeted by hostile hate-speech when they read criticisms of their fledgling techno-faith. It should be clear that I do think harm can easily follow from the promotion of True Belief among scared credulous ignoramuses. I recommend that you look more closely into the lives of those who donate money to this movement -- what is the average profile of such funders? Are they also funding legitimate scientific and medical research? Do they devote a proportion of their income to this movement comparable to the amount conventional venture capitalists devote to investment in mainstream technoscience? I do believe, by the way, that Terasem sells a crappy flag for an inflated sixty bucks on their website. It is interesting, don't you think, to say the least, that the raising of an overpriced banner emblazoned with facile symbolism is one of the things this harmless organization wants to encourage?
Third, if people want to leave scrapbooks or time capsules or archival traces of themselves in the world, I daresay the brittle evanescence of networked software is already well demonstrated to be a questionable way to go about it. Future anthropologists have little to worry about -- a trip to any one of our countless landfills will tell an exactly revealing story of our epoch to its survivors should there be any. But a contrary point is that government and commercial interests are already aggregating vast amounts of data traces into profiles to drive law enforcement inquiries and targeted marketing programs, and hence there is certainly no need for a charitable organization to clumsily re-invent and then pointlessly attach that third wheel. What is interesting is that most people are well aware that these database profiles, while significantly computable in terms of Big Data, do not create narratives we recognize as connected to our selves in a richly lived sort of way: To the contrary, we tend to regard these profiles as dangerously prejudicial, insultingly simplistic and stereotypical, damaging our civil liberties, getting us fundamentally wrong while threatening our real lives and real persons. Nobody thinks we have become immortal because the NSA is aggregating a data-profile framing us for future prosecutions, or because PR firms are selling our Amazon-clicks to the suits at Wal-Mart who want to harass us into buying their wholesale meat products. I suppose those who desperately want to become immortal might be scammed into believing otherwise, but they are obviously wrong and I won't have any part in encouraging such patent nonsense.