On Steve Jobs and digital immortality

Posted by Rob Enderle

There is a video currently going around Twitter that shows Steve Jobs discussing the concept of a Smart TV back in 1998. Clearly, he thought it was a stupid idea.

The clip likely offers a clue as to what Apple TV will and won't be if it is ever made a successful product. Basically, Steve's words are relevant over a decade later and will likely be just as relevant next decade.  

In fact, there is so much video footage of Steve Jobs that I can imagine clips of him popping up  indefinitely to address some issue or crisis. Frankly, he could actually have more impact in death than in life. 

As you may recall, Jobs didn't want folks in Apple hedging each decision with the mantra: "what would Steve Jobs do." This can perhaps be attributed to Steve's apprehension that he would be channeled badly - much like people initially did with Walt Disney. Unfortunately, they’d probably make the wrong decision or execute it badly and then blame Steve’s ghost.

But what if you could actually receive a valid answer to a critical question, along with Steve's analysis? Such a scenario would allow Apple decision makers to more accurately determine what Jobs - who was admittedly brilliant in a number of ways - might do. Sounds farfetched? Maybe, but we are likely approaching a point in time where technology could help a company founder achieve at least some form of immortality. Let’s explore this idea. 

Digital Immortality

The concept of digital immortality was examined at length on a popular TV show during a recent segment titled "Can We Live Forever?" which discussed Project LifeLike. Truthfully, it bothers me just a tad that the project originated in the corridors of an organization with the acronym "EVL" (Electronic Visualization Laboratory) - which suggests a Terminator or Matrix theme. 

On Steve Jobs and digital immortality Nevertheless, the idea of digital immortality seems tantalizingly close. Although LifeLike is currently focused on creating a human looking and acting computer interfaces, the group is exploring how to impart those aspects that make an individual unique into an immortal avatar.

Creating a digital image that looks like you is obviously the easy part, as is evidenced by an online service known as Evolver which specializes in designing realistic 3D avatars. But futurist Ian Pearson thinks we should be able to perfect uploading our consciousness into a computer by 2050, which is about 5-10 years too late for me and 39 too late for Steve. 

Yet, there is a site known as Lifenaut that claims to be capable of immortalizing you today. While it is far from perfect, the platform employs a series of personality tests, teaching sessions, and uploaded personal material (the more the better) that is used to emulate you.

Although this paradigm obviously falls short of fully uploading yourself to a brave new digital realm, it could provide an emulation that functions better than memory. Indeed, the legendary Gordon Bell, who is working on a similar long term project at Microsoft, wrote a book on this topic called "Total Recall:  How the E-Memory Revolution will Change Everything." Bell believes electronic memory may first supplement actual memory, thereby assuring effective human immortality in the near term future.

IBM’s Watson and Cognitive Computing

I recently watched IBM’s Watson execute its Jeopardy act at the Computer History museum, and I have to say, it clearly stomped the challengers into the dust. One must also realize that Watson did all of this not by emulating human thinking, but rather, by analyzing each question in context to formulate an answer which it then derived from an extensive database.

Watson was rarely wrong, but was successfully stumped a few times. Then again, that is what emulation is all about: making something appear human even though the background processes are anything but. While this method is sufficient for winning contests, it is probably not effective in terms of believable emulation.

There is also another ongoing IBM project known as Cognitive Computing which attempts to emulate the human brain in all of its glorious complexity. If CC evolves successfully, the platform could theoretically emulate individuals so accurately that a third partywouldn't be able to tell the difference between human and digital entity. This is likely the best hope, at least in the near term, of creating some form of digital immortality. 

Wrapping Up:  

There are times I’d like to ask my now passed grandfather a question and I regret never knowing my mother. We are definitely getting closer to a time that enough of ourselves can be left behind to provide help and insight to the generations that follow us - ensuring that what we have learned isn’t lost in our passing.   

In the end, this is less about our being immortal than it is about creating a legacy that goes beyond what we have done and includes who we are. With regard to Steve Jobs, there is likely enough printed material  to create a fairly decent avatar that could actually come back and save Apple any number of times when Cupertino, as companies often do, inevitably loses its way.

Of course, It will be somewhat ironic if the technology that allows that to happen originated with IBM. Then again, the first letter in immortality kind of implies an Apple product - doesn’t it? Just think about it: having generations of digital relatives showing up at Thanksgiving sure would be fun! And yes, it probably wouldn't take long to understand why the new "immortality option" features with a prominently placed off switch.