In 1950, Alan Turing proposed a test to measure the intelligence of machines, one that's still in use today. If a human couldn't distinguish a computer from a human in a text-based conversation, Turing theorized, the machine could be said to be "thinking."
Now consider this: What if you couldn't distinguish your own words from a machine pretending to be you? Would you let a machine do your thinking? And your socializing?
These questions aren't as hypothetical as they might seem.
LivesOn, a social media service-cum-publicity stunt, is using artificial intelligence to mimic individuals' Twitter activity in order to help people keep socializing online -- even once they're six feet under.
"When your heart stops beating, you'll keep tweeting" reads the tagline for LivesOn, which promises to maintain your "social afterlife."
The brainchild of London advertising agency Lean Mean Fighting Machine, LivesOn promises to learn your "likes, tastes, syntax" on Twitter; compose tweets and post retweets that replicate the pattern of your own; then post those messages from your account after you've kicked the bucket. The service, which is being developed with Queen Mary, University of London, has not yet launched, though already several thousand potential users have registered their interest.
"There's so much data and information people are posting and sharing about themselves ... And we thought, 'What is this going to mean for us, as a species, in evolutionary terms? What constitutes you? And what will constitute you in the future?'" said Lean Mean Fighting Machine creative partner Dave Bedwood of the inspiration for LivesOn. "This could be an early version of the Matrix."
As absurd as the concept may sound, LivesOn takes current trends in social media to their logical extreme.
Technology has already enabled us to transcend the boundaries of time and space to socialize, virtually, with people who aren't with us, physically. We carry our extended social circles with us wherever we go, so that while at dinner with a date, we can simultaneously mingle with hundreds of other people and, just by tapping Instagram or Twitter's real time feed of photos and posts, share in thousands of other moments taking place right at that instant.
As cyborg anthropologist Amber Case argued in a 2010 TED Talk, while other technology enhanced our physical abilities, online social networks have allowed for the "extension of the mental self," and endowed us each with a "second self" that's always up to hang out with someone online. "Whether you like it or not," Case explained, "you're starting to show up online, and people are interacting with your second self when you're not there."
Already, when it comes to engaging with others online, our presence is optional. Our consciousness -- and pulse -- could be unnecessary soon, too.
Bedwood hopes that "as years go by, your LivesOn will become almost like an online twin." We may not be able to live forever (though people in Silicon Valley are also working to remedy that), but we could keep up the appearance of immortality online, as author Nicholas Carr noted in a blog post on LivesOn. We take it for granted that information lives forever online. As LivesOn goes to show, people can live forever online, too.
Carr, who compares LivesOn to a "simulated Singularity," observes:
As more and more of our earthly self comes to be defined by our online profiles and postings, our digital garb, then it becomes a relatively easy task for a computer to replicate that self, dynamically and without interruption, after we're gone. As long as you keep posting, liking, and tweeting, spewing links to funny GIFs and trenchant longform texts, circulating the occasional, digitally fabricated instagram photo or vine video, your friends and acquaintances will never need know that your body has shuffled off the stage. For all social intents and purposes -- and what other intents and purposes are there? -- you'll live forever. I update, therefore I am.
Facebook, always on the bleeding edge of social norms, is already digitally resuscitating the dead, often in ways people find ghoulish or creepy. A colleague recently complained that she saw her deceased friend appear on the margins of her News Feed for having "liked" a brand that was advertising on the site. The social network made it appear as if he was still active on the site.
With its frictionless sharing and auto-posting apps, Facebook has also automated some of our posting on our behalf, letting us stay active on the site even when we're not on the social network (or, put another way, ensuring we can be social at all times, even when we're not socializing). Twitter users needn't despair: Bedwood said that the living could use his company's service to keep up their patter online.
And it seems people are quite content to carry on conversations with artificially intelligent approximations of ourselves. People are getting seduced by spambots, as the Tumblr "Okc_ebooks" goes to show. The blog features instant message exchanges with male online daters on OkCupid who, unbeknownst to them, were corresponding with Horse_ebooks, a Twitter bot that spews gibberish culled from ebooks. Though some of the men suspected there was something a bit off about their conversation partner, others flirted back. "Are you a poet?" one asked. Another went straight for, "yeah so wanna get f**ked?"
Will we like our automated alter-egos better than we like ourselves? Twitter, Facebook and Instagram could end up as social networks for our AI identities, with bots chatting to bots, liking each others' tweets and becoming best online friends on our behalf. Maybe that lets us focus on our dinner dates. Or maybe we'll find companionship with the algorithms.
Follow Bianca Bosker on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bbosker