letters from Ray | Living in virtual worlds as an avatar

June 1, 2014

Second Life avatars can interact and change personality in virtual worlds. (credit: Linden Lab)

Dear Mr. Kurzweil,

I’m in seventh grade, taking a research class called Da Vinci. I have to produce a 10 page annotated paper. I will produce a multimedia presentation on my topic.

My topic is immortality through genetics, nanotechnology and robotics with a special emphasis on artificial intelligence, such as living in a virtual world as an avatar.

Our teacher encouraged us to reach out to experts. I was hoping that you could answer a few questions.

I have watched your documentary Transcendent Man, and I’m currently reading your book The Singularity Is Near.

I appreciate it,

Hi Lucy,

You picked a good topic, send me the questions and I will answer. I’ve sent you a few things:

The movie that goes with the book The Singularity Is Near. It is about an avatar named Ramona who hires a civil liberties lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who plays himself, to press for her legal rights to be recognized as a “person” even though she is an avatar.

My latest book How to Create a Mind, which talks about how the human brain works and how to create an artificial intelligence that works in a similar way.

Good luck on the project,
Ray Kurzweil

related viewing:

The Singularity Is Near | A true story about the future, based on Ray Kurzweil’s New York Times bestseller, intertwines a fast paced documentary with a narrative story.

related viewing:
The Singularity Is Near | main

Dear Ray,

Thank you so much for the book and DVD. I finished the movie and it was fascinating. I also read The Singularity Is Near. It was very interesting, and to be honest some parts were too deep for me to understand. I am most interested in the virtual living aspect. While reading I have been trying to imagine what it would be like to live that way.

These are the questions:

1. Lucy’s question:

When people can “project” any body they want in a virtual environment: Will identity theft be an issue? How will people tell the real you from the one projected? Example: How would people tell Ariana Grande from people who “project” an Ariana Grande body?

1. Ray Kurzweil’s answer:

This is an excellent question. This is already an issue. If Ariana Grande were to send you an e-mail, how would you know it is really her? If you know her well you might try to determine whether the writing style and the information revealed was consistent with what you know about her. But if the information in the message was public information, then you still wouldn’t know for sure.

With someone projecting a body in a virtual reality environment, you actually have more to go on. Does the person move like Ariana? Are her facial mannerisms, accent, and other characteristics convincing? We’ll never be totally sure. People have been fooling each other for eons.

This can be a serious issue today when people attempt to fool others to steal from them or when adults pretend to be children or teenagers in chat rooms and on social networks.

We will also have person authentication technologies that will attempt to give you confidence that the person sending the information is who they say they are. How do you know that this e-mail is really coming from Ray Kurzweil? One way is that the ideas in the e-mail are what you expect from me.

Also the e-mail is coming from my address. That is a weak form of person authentication. It is not hard for people to break this and send an e-mail from someone else’s address, but we will develop more reliable methods of person authentication by the time we have fully convincing virtual reality.

2. Lucy’s question:

In our immortal state can we choose to end our existence?

2. Ray Kurzweil’s answer:

That’s another great question. It is my view that this important decision should indeed be in our own hands, not in the metaphorical hands of fate.

That being said, I would add that research has shown that people almost never choose to end their own life unless they are suffering physically or emotionally. If people are reasonably happy they want to continue to live for all the enjoyable and gratifying things that life has to offer.

I will say that it will be difficult to end our existence if we are fully digital because there will be a lot of backup copies of our “mind file” so we could never be sure that we erased them all. It is like trying to erase every copy of an e-mail today. There are usually additional copies stored on a server somewhere.

3. Lucy’s question:

An important part of our happiness is the interpersonal relationships that we have and wouldn’t they be more difficult to build and maintain if a virtual person is always changing their appearance and the way they interact?

3. Ray Kurzweil’s answer:

These developments always have positive and negative aspects. So, yes, it might be confusing and challenging if a friend or loved one is constantly changing their appearance and other aspects of their personality. On the other hand, relationships will become more interesting. We will become smarter and funnier.

In today’s world, some relationships end because people become bored with each other. If we have many fascinating virtual worlds to visit together, and if we can take on different appearances and characteristics that go with the virtual environments, then life and relationships can maintain their interest and intensity.

We change our appearance now for different situations, at least using today’s technology of fashion, hair styles, and makeup. Someone going to the prom looks different than the same person going bicycling.

Virtual excitement and world travels with a lot of variety in Second Life. (credit: Linden Lab)

4. Lucy’s question:

In certain situations, will the government be able to choose whether or not we can transfer to a virtual reality? For example, if we were sentenced to a lifetime in jail will we have to spend the rest of our immortal life in jail?

4. Ray Kurzweil’s answer:

Your second sentence is very insightful. Today if a fifty year old person gets a life sentence, people assume that it is only a matter of several decades. But if lifespans are indefinite, then a life sentence is far more serious. At the same time, killing someone is also much more serious because the victim has been deprived of much more than what we now consider a normal lifetime.

The reality is that given enough time there is always the possibility that the person in jail can convince society that he or she has redeemed him/herself. A life sentence without parole is supposed to be until death, but society can always change its mind given enough time. The person can make the argument that the sentence was given when lifespans were considered to be under 120 years and now that he or she is 130 society should reconsider.

5. Lucy’s question:

It seems that different groups would adopt the virtual living stage of evolution at different speeds. Doesn’t it seem like early adopters would be more vulnerable to attack from more traditional cultures?

5. Ray Kurzweil answer:

We see a clash today between cultures that want to stay in the past and those who adopt the future. People who adopt the future tend to be more successful, so society is generally moving in the direction of adopting positive change, but there certainly can be (and is) conflict along the way.

Being in virtual reality is inherently safer. The telephone is a form of virtual reality in that you are in the same virtual space as someone else at least as far as talking is concerned. It is as if you are together. But you can hang up! The same will be true for full immersion virtual environments that incorporate all of the senses. You can always “hang up,” that is leave the virtual environment. That is not always the case in real reality.

6. Lucy’s question:

You have said you are not happy with your human version 1.0 body, but won’t you be trading one limitation for another transitioning to non-biological? You will be “stuck” living in a computer system that can be damaged by natural disasters, viruses, loss of power or even worse EMPs.

6. Ray Kurzweil’s answer:

Even though I think and talk about the future a lot, I am not a first adopter. For example, I take a lot of health supplements but I want to see a great deal of scientific evidence that a particular supplement is safe and beneficial before I consider it. The same thing will be true of non-biological enhancements. I will want to know that the types of problems you list have been satisfactorily dealt with. Nothing will ever be 100% safe, but we are certainly not safe today with our biological bodies. They can be subject to natural disasters, accidents, biological viruses, and so on.

The way I see non-biological enhancements progressing is that we will begin to use them in a way in which our survival is not dependent on them. They will provide capabilities such as being able to be in a virtual environment, or finding information quickly right inside our brains. But if these computerized enhancements crash or malfunction, we will still be able to go back to our fully biological lives, at least until the non-biological enhancements are repaired.

I will also point out that part of human body version 2.0 are biological enhancements, for example turning off (or turning down) the fat insulin receptor gene (that says “hold on to every calorie in our fat cells because the next hunting season may not work out so well”) so that we can eat a lot and remain healthy. That’s just one small example of reprogramming the information processes underlying biology.

Hi Lucy,

Your questions were remarkable good, not just for a seventh grader, but for someone at any age! They were unique and insightful and made me think. I think our readers will enjoy reading our dialog, with your parent’s permission.

I’ve written a novel called Danielle about a precocious young girl who changes the world with her ideas. You remind me of her. I would be glad to send you a copy of the book if you are interested.

I would be interested in receiving a copy of your paper.

Best of luck with your project!
Ray Kurzweil

Mr. Kurzweil,

My daughter Lucy really lights up when she receives your e-mails and can’t wait to share them with her teachers and family. Your positive feedback has sparked an increased interest in science and technology for which I am grateful.

I am hoping your kind words will embolden her to use her gifts to fulfill her potential. Thank you for your time and guidance on this project.

Best regards,

related reading:
Wikipedia | Second Life
Wikipedia | Linden Lab

Second Life | main
The Immersive Education Initiative | main

Opportunities in Second Life. (credit: Linden Lab)

related viewing from Daxtor Despres:

Draxtor Despres | The Drax Files: World Makers. Stories from Second Life. In the digital universe known as Second Life, a vibrant global community transcends boundaries of cultural, ethnic and generational nature: with unlimited possibilities to explore, make or sell anything one can imagine, stories of individual empowerment abound.

The Drax Files: World Makers has been profiling the creative individuals who shape Second Life with their ingenuity and passion via mixed reality video mini documentaries since early 2013.

Entrepreneurs, game designers and fashion aficionados, musicians, artists and social-issue activists are featured here with often very personal tales: for these pioneers virtual reality leads them on a transformative journey, as real as the experience they create and share.

Their avatar is not a pixelated fantasy but a true extension of their inner self, an identity of their own choosing eager to explore and able to express itself in richer ways than possible in the physical world.

related viewing:

Reuters | 3D fun improves child therapy in Poland. Scientists in Poland are helping children with autism and Down’s Syndrome better focus on therapeutic exercises by taking them out of their real world environment and into a specially-designed 3D cave in which their imagination can flourish. Jim Drury reports.

Reuters | Military dog handlers to get virtual assistance. Researchers at the US Naval Research Laboratory are creating interactive video games to help military dog handlers stay sharp. Nathan Frandino reports.

related reading:
Reuters | “Disabled could think their way around Second Life”