Survival as a Digital Ghost


You can survive after death in various kinds of artifacts. You can survive in diaries, photographs, sound recordings, and movies. But these artifacts record only superficial features of yourself. We are already close to the construction of programs that partially and approximately replicate entire human lives (by storing their memories and duplicating their personalities). A digital ghost is an artificially intelligent program that knows all about your life. It is an animated auto-biography. It replicates your patterns of belief and desire. You can survive after death in a digital ghost. We discuss a series of digital ghosts over the next 50 years. As time goes by and technology advances, they are progressively more perfect replicas of the lives of their original authors.

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  1. 1.

    The original impersonal Turing test goes like this: A human judge is put in a sealed room containing only a teletype. It is linked to either a computer or to a human. The judge types questions and statements into the teletype and receives printed responses. A computer passes the Turing test iff it can convince the judge that it is a human. The personalized Turing test goes like this: A close associate (family member, friend, co-worker) of a human is put in a sealed room containing only a teletype. It is linked either to a natural human or the digital ghost of that human. The digital ghost passes the personalized Turing test iff it can convince the associate that it is the natural human. Kurzweil (2005: 383) mentions the personalized Turing test but does not define it or elaborate. We can extend these tests in various ways. Perhaps the computer or ghost has to fool many expert judges. Perhaps the interface is not a teletype but a system with visual and auditory channels.

  2. 2.

    Science fiction writers and futurists have portrayed many things like ghost bodies. The distant ancestor of the ghost body is Bush’s “Memex” system (Bush 1945). A similar system is Norman’s “Teddy” (Norman 1992: ch. 6). The “recorded personalities” or “constructs” in William Gibson’s novels are also like ghost bodies. The personality of McCoy Pauley (aka the Dixie Flatline) in Gibson’s novel Neuromancer has been recorded and stored: “It was disturbing to think of the Flatline as a construct, a hardwired ROM cassette replicating a dead man’s skills, obsessions, knee-jerk responses” (Gibson 1984: 76–77). Ghosts play central roles in Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). But Gibson’s ghosts are merely psychological. They are not ghost bodies.

  3. 3.

    A variety of companies offer virtual memorial services (see These are websites dedicated to the deceased. They are little more than on-line scrapbooks.

  4. 4.

    Many projects aim to make diaries. Early projects include “Lifestreams” (Freeman and Gelernter 1996); “Memories for Life” (Andrew Fitzgibbon & Ehud Reiter, see <>. Accessed 22 September 2006.); and DARPA’s Life Log project (see <>. Accessed 18 April 2006.). The CARPE Special Interest Group (SIG) of the Association for Computing Machinery is devoted to research on Life Logs. See <>. Accessed 18 April 2006.

  5. 5.

    The web site for Microsoft’s MyLifeBits project is < barc/MediaPresence/MyLifeBits.aspx>. Accessed 18 April 2006.

  6. 6.

    The personality capture tools developed by W. S. Bainbridge can be downloaded for Windows PCs at <>. Accessed 14 July 2006.

  7. 7.

    Many primitive preference engines exist today. They are known as recommendation engines. Many current websites have recommendation engines. The website has a large database of possible choices (e.g. choices of books, of songs, etc.). Based on your past purchases, past searches, and choices of likeminded others, the recommendation engine builds an abstract profile of your desire. Recommendation engines exist today for books (; they exist for music (e.g., Apple’s iTunes music store); they exist for movies (NetFlix); they exist for clothes ( and They also exist for travel ( You could also train recommendation engines to record your preferences in food and art. Once your ghost knows your preferences, it can tell people whether or not you’d like something. For example, someone might show your ghost a digitized picture of a work of art; your ghost would say you don’t like Picasso.

  8. 8.

    Whole-body simulations are being developed by many groups. Examples include the Virtual Human Project (Krause 2000) and the Virtual Soldier Research Program at the University of Iowa (

  9. 9.

    Personal Digital Biographers (PDBs) are wearable data recorders. PDBs exist today (2006) but are cumbersome and not available for mass production. One example of a proposed PDB is the Shadow (Landay et al. 1998).

  10. 10.

    A Symbolic Intellect is a classical symbol-processing artificial intellect. It takes text as input. It has a symbolic memory (vocabulary, common sense knowledge). It can perform symbolic inference (deductive and inductive). It produces text as output.

  11. 11.

    The idea of using monitored video game scenarios to extract personal information was suggested to me by Humberto Castaneda at the AI@50 Conference at Dartmouth College on 14 July 2006. We further developed that idea together in discussion.

  12. 12.

    If your ghost can find patterns in visual data, you will be able to tell your ghost about your romantic preferences by going through a database of photos of possible partners. Such databases currently exist (e.g., at,,, As you rate the photos, your ghosts builds a model of your preferences.


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Correspondence to Eric Steinhart.

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Steinhart, E. Survival as a Digital Ghost. Minds & Machines 17, 261–271 (2007).

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  • Virtual persons
  • Recorded personalities
  • Survival
  • Afterlife