Self-Tracking and Death Switches

January 31, 2009

DeathSwitch.pngThe other night at the QS Show&Tell a few of us got into a conversation about the potential use of self-tracking data in the development of simulations of the self. Of course all models are simulations in a sense, but the discussion reminded me of a terrific bit of speculation from Nature a few years ago by the neuroscientist David Eagleman. It is a future history of death switches – little programs written to inform family members or colleagues of critical passwords and file locations in the case of the death of their owner. This turns out to be an unexpectedly powerful device:

…Soon enough, people realized they could program messages to be delivered on dates in the future: “Happy 87th birthday. It’s been 22 years since my death. I hope your life is proceeding the way you want it to.”

With time, people began to push death switches further. Instead of confessing their death in the e-mails, they pretended they were not dead. Using auto-responder algorithms that cleverly analyzed incoming messages, a death switch could generate apologetic excuses to turn down invitations, to send congratulations on a life event, and to claim to be looking forward to a chance to see them again sometime soon.

Today, building a death switch to pretend you are not dead has become an art form. Death switches are programmed to send a fax occasionally, make a transfer between bank accounts, or make an online purchase of the latest novel. The most sophisticated switches reminisce about shared adventures, exchange memories about a good story, swap inside jokes, brag about past feats, summon up lifetimes of experience.

Of course the story does not end there. For soon the death switches are communicating with each other, and an immortality of sorts evolves, based on an approximation our identities. Here is the full reference, but a visit to the main page of Eagleman’s Lab is highly recommended, with the caveat that there are too many interesting ideas there for fast consumption.

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