Avatars and Virtual Immortality

By Bainbridge, William Sims | The Futurist, March-April 2011 | Go to article overview

Avatars and Virtual Immortality


Bainbridge, William Sims, The Futurist


Deceased people always left active legacies in the memories of the survivors who knew them, and in the consequences of the deeds they performed in life. Now, a very great variety of avatars and agents in virtual worlds is extending the scope of action for a growing number of living people, potentially continuing their active existence after death and fulfilling the fantasies of religion through information technology.

A hint of the human future can be found on Aldor Rise in Outland's Shattrath City in the massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft. There stands Caylee Dak, an Elf huntress, with her nightsaber panther, Dusky. Her function is to bless any member of the Alliance who brings her a poem beginning, "Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there, I do not sleep. I am in a thousand winds that blow, across Northrend's bright and shining snow." As an avatar, Caylee Dak is an active memorial for a player named Dak Krause, who died of leukemia in 2007, dressed exactly as she was when she served as his avatar in this virtual world, now providing a hint of immortality for his departed soul.

Avatars need not reflect the person precisely, and indeed World of War-craft calls them characters rather than avatars, suggesting that they have some independent nature. Thus, before we even begin to catalog the full range of avatars and agents that already exist, we should realize that they are expressions of the self, and the self may be expressed in many ways. I had 22 World of Warcraft characters, and invested more than 700 hours of my own existence in each of two of them, Maxrohn and Catullus. Maxrohn, a human priest, was named after my uncle, Max Rohn, who was an Episcopal priest and something of an adventurer; he once taught me a judo move that could break a man's arm. Thus, Maxrohn was a mixture of me and my uncle, and we all are partly reflections of the family members who have shaped our own characters. Catullus was based on the ancient Roman poet of that name, and I have published an essay bylined "Catullus," in the form of a letter from him to a supernatural being, namely me, about his own sense of being real.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Some recent gamelike virtual worlds, notably Star Trek Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online, allow one to have four or five secondary avatars operating at once, and to set their degree of autonomy. In a very real sense, these secondaries are programmable by the user, because one may set ahead of time which actions each one can perform, and then in real time give them commands or leave them to operate autonomously. Their degree of artificial intelligence is low, but not entirely negligible, because, for example, they learn which enemies are doing the most damage to them and respond accordingly. When an artificial person has some degree of autonomy from control by its owner, we call it an agent.

Already, many people have information technology agents, but these agents are so simple we do not ordinarily think of them as such. Your answering machine acts in your stead when it says, "Sorry I'm not home now, please leave a message." Many companies use speech-recognition technology in more-sophisticated systems that can ask and answer questions, and it is just a matter of time before you will be able to do this with your home machine. …

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