The other day a colleague and good friend of mine told me that he took all of the texts that he and his father wrote back and forth over the years and wrote a machine learning algorithm that when queried would return a text that “sounded” like his father. He said that it wasn’t exactly like his dad, but it did have a resemblance. This made me think about the concept of cognitive prosthetics in a much different light than I had before. Specifically, I realized that our digital breadcrumbs will ultimately lead to a cognitive shadow that will impact reality beyond our physical lives.
When I was in graduate school (in the early 1990s) a friend of mine and I were talking over a few drinks and we were discussing Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs). In this somewhat altered state of mind we realized that these were not just devices but that they were actually cognitive prosthetics. When I was a child, I remember when my mind was “cluttered” with information that required such precision that one small error would make the information meaningless. During that time most people simply “remembered” everyone’s phone number (or at least the numbers for your good friends and family). Obviously a simple transpose of two digits or mis-remembering one digit would make the information completely meaningless. I had to remember phone numbers and addresses and calendar events. This seemed to clutter my mind with things that it just was not designed to encode.
However, this was not that big of a step over simple pen and paper that was used by most adults at the time. Black address books and pocket calendars were very common. However, there was something different that happened when these devices came out. When I started using my first Palm Pilot I could “feel” my mind become less cluttered. Or I should say, I could “feel” my mind able to relax slightly and focus on what it was designed to do–understand, imagine and infer.
According to a recent Pew Research Center Study 77% of Americans own a smart phone today. According to eMarketer, Americans now spend over four hours on their mobile devices each day and according to MediaKix we spend almost two hours on the top five social media sites (FaceBook, YouTube, SnapChat, Instagram and Twitter). These statistics show how much we have decided to “offload” to these cognitive devices. Initially it was simply offloading factoids that our brains were really not designed to encode (i.e., precise digit memorization is not what we are good at). We have now started to offload our social functions too. Initially it started with Facebook and efficiently “updating” our friends with our “status changes” with posting pictures of the new dog, our children or our vacations. However, this now has grown even further. YouTube provides a method for efficiently transmitting knowledge and teaching to millions of people immediately. Instagram and Snapchat allow us to rapidly communicate images of where we are and how we look and feel.
I am approaching my 50th birthday this year and as I look back on my life I think about what an amazing period I have lived in. When I was in high school I still typed my papers on a manual typewriter. Today, I hold in my pocket the knowledge of all of humanity. As I look forward to the next ~50 years I think about what might change in those 50 years. Cognitive prosthetics are about remembering what happened in the past. But what if all of those digital trails that I left behind could be used to create a Cognitive Shadow. That is, like my friend who turned the data from his text exchanges with his father into a “text bot” that would respond with words that sounded like his father, it doesn’t seem to far fetched to think that my digital trail can be used to create a digital bot that will extend beyond my physical life.
It isn’t that far fetched to build an email bot where people could send emails to my Cognitive Shadow and it would respond in much the same way that I would. In fact, this has already been done by Eugenia Kuyda with grief bots following the death of a good friend of hers in 2013. With the digital trail it isn’t too far fetched to even have a Cognitive Shadow that not only responds, but also initiates a conversation using the statistics of my email correspondences.
But could we have a Cognitive Shadow that goes beyond grief bots. Again, the digital trail that I (and most people reading this article) will leave behind will be quite massive and getting larger every day. We already have bots that do stock trading, and there are bots that look at my trading behavior and make recommendations. What if they simply made the trades for me after my death. My Cognitive Shadow would now have a method for generating revenue. It would also have access to all of my movie preferences on Netflix, Amazon and Google Play. It would be able to continue to “experience” movies and entertainment in much the same way that I would. My grandchildren would be able to interact with my Cognitive Shadow with contemporary information.
It isn’t too far fetched to believe that very soon almost all of us will have a Cognitive Shadow. A bot that will have the capability to make decisions and interact with others in much the same way that I would act. Although, in principle, this Cognitive Shadow could extend for centuries, it would not be me. It would be a lot like the Searle’s Chinese Room argument against a machine having consciousness. Although I would not experience this Cognitive Shadow, it would be an entity that would continue to have an impact on reality beyond my life.