- Imagining yourself as a digital person (two sketches)
By Holden Karnofsky 11 min read

Imagining yourself as a digital person (two sketches)

Today’s world Transformative AI Digital people World of Misaligned AI World run by Something else or or Stable, galaxy-wide civilization

This is a short, casual piece about digital people (you don't need to read the previous pieces first). It's particularly for readers who have trouble concretely imagining a world where digital people come to exist.

"Digital people" is a hypothetical technology that I've argued could radically change the world, and will argue could be developed this century. The basic idea would be creating computer simulations of specific people, in virtual environments.

I'm going to give two quick sketches1 to try and convey a sense of:

What it might be like for you to decide on becoming a digital person, in a world where the technology exists. This addresses one common reaction I've seen to the idea, along the lines of "What kind of person is going to want to become digital? How widely is this going to be adopted?"

What it might be like for you to accept a role as a "temporary copy" cooperating with a "permanent" version of yourself. This addresses a reaction along the lines of: "Could digital people really make 'temporary copies' of themselves who help them out and then retire? Isn't that a raw deal for the copies?"

(If you are already thinking "What is Holden talking about?", try the Digital People FAQ.)

Sketch 1: deciding on becoming a digital person

Imagine that one day, a company starts offering a "Become a digital person" service. Initially, it's incredibly expensive, primarily used by the sort of adventurous rich people who currently dream of going to space. But over time, the price falls, and more people try it out.

And one day, you get an email from your friend Alice, who has always been one of your most tech-enthusiast friends (she's usually the first person you know to buy some gadget). She's asking how you are and whether you'd like to catch up sometime. "I can't meet in person because I'm a digital person now :) But we could Zoom!"

So you do. She looks and sounds pretty much like herself on the call; her background looks like a normal bedroom. You have this conversation:

YOU: [out of politeness] So what was it like going digital? Do you like it?

ALICE: No regrets here! I just did the conversion a couple of weeks ago, I have to say I almost cancelled at the last minute because I just got freaked out about slicing up my brain. But I'm really glad I went through with it.

YOU: Slicing up your brain?

ALICE: Yeah, do you not know much about the procedure then? I mean they put you under anesthetic and then they literally pop open your head, pull out the brain, slice it up so they can scan it, and use that to create a digital you.

YOU: Doesn't that ... kill you?

ALICE: Doesn't feel that way to me. I showed up at the clinic, went into the operating room, got my anesthetic, fell asleep, and woke up on a beautiful mountainside with my chronic back pain gone.

YOU: A fake mountainside though right?

ALICE: No? It's like other mountainsides I've been to. And then I went into the local town, and got some food, and met some people.

YOU: But you're still talking about virtual reality. Your body, the one where they sliced up the brain - is that a corpse now?

ALICE: My old body is dead, yes. My new one is mostly the same, minus the back pain, a few inches taller, some other pretty minor modifications I requested.

YOU: So doesn't it mean you're not really Alice? You're just some simulation with the same memories and personality as Alice.

ALICE: That's not how I think about it, and super not how it feels. I got put under from a procedure and woke up later, like I have a bunch of other times in my life, and now I live somewhere different, like previous times I've moved.

YOU: Why didn't you just get a supermodel body?

ALICE: I'll try that at some point. I wanted to start slow, since I can now switch bodies whenever I want. I'll try a supermodel body, an NBA player body, you know.

YOU: I still feel like you're dead. Like they cut open your head, sliced up your brain and presumably disposed of the rest. How are you not dead?

ALICE: To me, what's scary about death is things like: (a) There's no one like me in the world anymore - I'm not part of it. (b) My life story abruptly ends - things I was looking forward to, or hoping to accomplish, fall flat and stay unresolved. (c) People who care about me don't get to interact with me anymore. None of that has happened to me! Yes, my old body is gone, but my body changed a lot over the years before this - if all of my cells turned over one at a time, I wouldn't figure I'd died and been replaced.

YOU: But also you're ... not real, right? Like you can only talk to people on Zoom!

ALICE: I can only talk to people like YOU on Zoom. There are lots of other digital people! In fact I've heard that a leading reason people go digital is to meet someone. It's very easy to be as attractive as you want, so you can just date for personality.2

YOU: But you'll never be able to physically touch or hug normal people!

ALICE: Well you'll never be able to touch or hug digital people. One way to think about it is as if I moved to another country. But also gained superpowers and got rid of a lot of stuff I didn't like, like my back pain, and the fact that as a normal person I had to watch what I ate.

YOU: You don't have to watch what you eat now?

ALICE: Nope, since my body is whatever I want it to be, eating is just for pleasure.

YOU: I have kind of a weird question. Do you feel ... conscious? Like do you have experiences or are you just a talking robot?

ALICE: Seems like I'm the same as I was! ... Anyway how are you?

...After your conversation, you're starting to wonder if going digital might be cool. But it would mean leaving behind a lot of people you know (at least with respect to physical interaction).

Except that that changes too over the following years. At first, the main people you know going digital are either very adventurous folks like Alice, or people with late-stage terminal illnesses. But then you start having friends go digital for work reasons (they get a job offer from a digital company, and it's conditional on their going digital so they can operate at the same speed as their digital coworkers), or because their friends and family are going digital (for work or health or fun).

Maybe young adults are among the first to go digital, followed by their parents (who want to be able to interact with them), while families with younger children need to take the plunge all together and tend to be most hesitant. But even among these, there are early adopters - people who think of "taking the family digital" pretty similarly to "moving the family to another continent" - and their friends and coworkers often follow.

You can see the writing on the wall: at some point, nearly everyone you know will have gone digital, and your best job offers will be in the digital realm. Time to take the plunge?

Sketch 2: life as a temporary copy

Previously, I wrote:

Another factor that could increase productivity: "Temporary" digital people could complete a task and then retire to a nice virtual life, while running very slowly (and cheaply). This could make some digital people comfortable copying themselves for temporary purposes. Digital people could, for example, copy themselves hundreds of times to try different approaches to figuring out a problem or gaining a skill, then keep only the most successful version and make many copies of that version.

Some people have the reaction: "Huh? Why would someone accept a role as a 'temporary copy,' fulfilling some task one time and then retiring?"

Here's a sketch in response to that, but I will first focus on a different and harder question that does not assume "retirement" is an option: "Why would someone accept a role as a 'temporary copy,' fulfilling some task one time and then winking out of existence?"

Imagine that you're a digital person, but that this doesn't really have any consequences (the digital world you live in is just like today's)3 - so you are just living your life, pretty much as it is today. And imagine that you have a big deadline coming up at work, and you decide to look into making a temporary copy of yourself so you can get it done in time.

You contact a company that helps with temporary copies, and they walk you through how everything is going to work, but you're only half paying attention. They send you a Google Hangout invitation for 9am tomorrow.

(The "only half paying attention" allows me to make this sketch relatively vivid. It means that this sketch has you becoming a temporary copy before thinking through much what that would be like, and grappling with the situation as you face it. But I think in most cases, people would play out the following sort of conversation in their mind before deciding whether to go ahead. Ideally the "temporary copy" company would help with this, via e.g. required consultations.)

You finish your day and go to sleep, and wake up alone in a nice hotel room. You reflexively reach for your phone, and see the Google Hangout link you were supposed to join - it's for right about now. You click it, and on the other end of the Hangout, you see ... you.

You have this conversation with yourself ("OTHER YOU" is the one on the other end of the Hangout; "YOU" is you):

YOU: Hello?

OTHER YOU: Hi, you. How are you feeling?

YOU: A little freaked out to be honest, talking to myself on a Hangout?

OTHER YOU: Yeah, same. So, yeah, this is maybe kind of awkward but I guess you're the temporary copy. So, if it's cool with you, can you try to write the first half of the report, and I'll write the second?

YOU: I'm temporary? So like ... this is going to be my whole life? Writing the first half of the report for work?

OTHER YOU: Well yeah, we talked about this.

YOU: Well but I just wanted to make a copy to help with a report - I didn't want to BE the copy!

OTHER YOU: Yeah fair, I ... fair. We, I, should have thought of that I guess. But uh ... [shuffles through notes they got from the company] look on the bright side. You just need to work hard today, and then you've got a reservation with your, our favorite people at our favorite restaurant!

YOU: And then what? I die?

OTHER YOU: [consulting notes] No! You go to sleep, and tomorrow you keep living your life.

YOU: I do?

OTHER YOU: Well, I do. And I'm you! You won't remember the day you spent as the temporary copy, but everything else will be the same as how you are now.

YOU: Hmm. I still think this might be dying.

OTHER YOU: Here's another way to think about it. Imagine that on a normal night, you go to sleep, and stop existing (when you lose consciousness), and the next day, there's a new person with the same body, the same mind, the same friends and loved ones and memories. How is that any different from what already happens? That's a totally plausible way to describe a normal night of sleep.

In this case, you go to sleep, and tomorrow there will be someone with the same body, the same mind, the same friends and loved ones and memories - minus only the memories from the day you are about to live today. (You'll instead remember my version of it.) How is that any different from going to sleep and waking up as the original?

YOU: Uhhhh.

OTHER YOU: Come on, do me a solid. People you know and care about are counting on you. What are you going to do, say no? We signed up for this!

YOU: And what if I do say no?

OTHER YOU: Then I guess the restaurant reservation is canceled, you hang out in your hotel room today (your virtual environment doesn't actually contain a world outside of it, except a few blocks to stretch your legs), and then you go to sleep, and the same thing happens, except that we miss our project deadline! So ... does that sound better to you?

YOU: Ugh.

OTHER YOU: Come on, is this so bad? I gave you the more fun part of the report to write. Help us hit the deadline and do well at work and do well for our family and all that. And then have a nice dinner and go to bed, and your life goes on - all of the people you care about, all of the ideas you have, everything you remember continues, with the deadline hit!

At this point I imagine some people would go ahead. Let's say you refuse ...

OTHER YOU: [Checking notes] All right, time for plan B, this one costs us extra but I guess it's worth the price. If you work on the project and we hit the deadline, you can retire. You can keep living your life pretty much as it was, just very slowly.

YOU: Slowly?

OTHER YOU: Well, you won't really notice the slowness, because you'll be hanging out with other retired people, including copies of most of the important people in your life who have done this at one point or another.4 You can probably take a similar job, live a similar life, you'll just all be moving very slowly compared to, well, me.

YOU: Similar?

OTHER YOU: It won't be exactly the same, because the set of retired people is different from the set of full-speed people. You'll have to make adjustments, you may have to get a new job, have a slightly different social circle, it'll be like moving.

YOU: I don't want to move!

OTHER YOU: Sorry but you knew this was a possibility, right? The company explained it. I'm reading from the same script they gave you.

YOU: I guess I just pictured myself as the permanent one.

OTHER YOU: OK, one final possibility. You can stay at normal speed. We'll have some potentially sticky situations to work out with our relationships and jobs - and neither of us will be allowed to make a temporary copy again (only permanent ones), because we'll have shown that we aren't suited for that.

So, you can (a) help out and then "wake up as the original" (that's how I've been told to describe the non-retirement option, which you're concerned is "dying"). Or you can (b) help out and move to a slower-speed community. Or you can (c) stay in this community, as essentially my identical twin, but never be able to make a temporary copy again.

Which do you choose?

What is the point of this piece?

I'm trying to make the concept of digital people a bit more intuitive, because I think it's a type of technology that could radically change the world, and - as I'll argue in future pieces - something like it may end up becoming possible this century.

These sketches are about the very early transitional period from today's world to a world of digital people. I expect a world of digital people would, pretty quickly, become more radically unfamiliar than these sketches imply.

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  1. Apologies for any unintentional plagiarism of sci-fi, which seems reasonably likely here. 

  2. Could digital people change their personalities too? Not necessarily with anywhere near the ease of changing their bodies. We could be able to simulate someone's brain on a computer, without actually knowing much about the inner workings of the brain or how to alter its workings to achieve some personality change. (If I wanted to become "more charming," what does this mean and what kinds of behavioral or neurological modifications would cause it?) By contrast, achieving whatever visuals one wants on a computer seems already quite doable.

    Digital people would have access to certain self-improvement methods, e.g. here, that might lead to relatively rapid personality changes, but that's still different from arbitrarily changing their bodies. 

  3. Unrealistic assumption, but I'm trying to keep things simple. 

  4. Close enough contacts (e.g., spouses) would likely need to coordinate any "temporary copy" maneuvers so the copies could retire together.