Virtual Immortality

April 1, 2010 — Leave a comment

For centuries, humans have been trying to beat mortality through technology, employing such fanciful (if chilling) methods as cryonics, the freezing of cadavers in the hope that science might one day stumble upon a cure for all ills. Now, the National Science Foundation has awarded a half-million-dollar grant to the universities of Central Florida at Orlando and Illinois at Chicago to explore how researchers might use artificial intelligence, archiving, and computer imaging to create convincing digital versions of real people, a possible first step toward virtual immortality.

“The goal is to combine artificial intelligence with the latest advanced graphics and video game-type technology to enable us to create historical archives of people beyond what can be achieved using traditional technologies such as text, audio, and video footage,” says Jason Leigh of the University of Chicago’s Electronic Visualization Laboratory.

Leigh’s lab will attempt to store and then digitize the appearance, mannerisms, voice, and (some of) the knowledge of a senior program manager from the National Science Foundation who is known for his institutional savvy. The researchers hope to then assemble the data into a “virtual person” or avatar that will be able to respond to questions and behave in a manner representative of the test subject.

“The technology we are developing isn’t going to magically map memories and personalities,” says Leigh. “There is a lot of work to be done. But one can envision-given sufficient computing power and information- that one can produce highly realistic characters.”

A simpler form of this technology already pervades online environments like the popular game Second Life, says Leigh. One potential use might be to enhance the experience of such games, enabling players to archive their characters’ experiences in the game environment, and, of course, to populate virtual worlds with characters who are more rich, interesting, and lifelike.

Stringing together the diverse technologies of live computer animation with artificial intelligence, speech recognition, speech synthesis, and facial expression recognition will be the biggest challenge of the project. Leigh doubts that the team will be able to create a totally credible and naturalistic avatar within the project’s three-year time frame, but he is optimistic that the work will stimulate interest in the field.

The project seeks to not only further the research of scientists tinkering in virtual worlds, but also be of use to a public trying to make its way in a world increasingly dominated by computers.

“It goes beyond just creating technology for archiving people,” says Leigh. “It encourages people to think about different ways in which they can communicate and interact with computers. For example, right now many computers have built-in web-cams. Most of them are turned off unless [they are being used] for videoconferencing. But imagine if the camera were active all the time and the computer was watching and listening to you as you work, just like an assistant or a secretary. It could use that information to provide you with assistance if it sees that you are frustrated. Human-to-human communication has evolved and matured over several millennia, but humans have really only learned to communicate with computers [in] the last 50 years.”

While the technologies, as well as the project itself, are still in their infancy, Leigh is hopeful that the research may one day lead to entirely new ways of thinking about memory, history, and even immortality. “In our efforts to capture the past by digitizing historical artifacts, using some of the most advanced imaging technology available today, we’ve forgotten to turn that imaging technology ‘inwards’ and try and capture the original creators of those historical artifacts,” he says.

In the future, artificial intelligence, voice synthesis, and computer graphics may allow us to preserve much more of the departed than present technology allows and in so doing, infuse history, and memory, with new life. -Patrick Tucker

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, July-August 2007.


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