In the early 1990s, a Hungarian girl who attended Alexey Turchin's school suddenly died. Turchin, a Muscovite teenager who had a crush on the girl, resolved to bring her back to life.
To do this, he decided to interview the girl's classmates and friends in order to collect every bit of information about her. This data, fed into a supercomputer (to be designed, built, and operated by Turchin himself) would then be used to conjure up a digital reproduction of the late girl's self.
The plan didn't pan out, partly because there wasn't a supercomputer able to emulate the human brain, and partly because—as Turchin puts it—"that was before social networks and there wasn't much information around about her." But Turchin didn't give up on the idea of digital immortality wholesale. Quite the contrary: He is now trying to achieve it for himself.
Turchin is a transhumanist activist. A co-founder of Russia's Longevity Party, he believes that science can help humankind banish death. His job title, according to his business card, is "Roadmap Creator." Since, according to Turchin, fewer and fewer people want to spend time reading books, he lays out his arguments in sprawling "concept maps," a type of flowchart which are often further developed into other sub-maps, in an eternal branching-out.
All of his maps, directly or otherwise, deal with how to live forever. For Turchin, digital immortality—creating a conscious, virtual duplicate of our minds that could outlive us—is only the third-best way to become immortal. It comes after the advent of an almighty, all-knowing AI within our lifetime and cryonics, in that order. Still, lest he put all his eggs in the wrong basket, he is investing a moderate amount of resources in his "Plan C."
When I met him in London, Turchin, who is 42 and wears glasses and a beard, had an audio recorder poking out of his jacket. Since 2015, he has been recording everything that happens to and around him, spending about $20 in batteries every month. When he opened his laptop to show me another roadmap, its webcam also automatically started filming our conversation.
"All these data are periodically uploaded to the cloud—I never watch or listen to them before uploading," he explained in strongly accented English. "As back-up storage, I also use M-Discs: They are special, Blu-ray discs that are said to last up to 1,000 years. I buried some of them in the Russian countryside, in a can, together with a sample of my DNA."
The reason for all this recording and cloak-and-dagger storage is that, in Turchin's opinion, what we remember plays an enormous role in making us the people we are; a digital copy of a human mind would therefore need to be built starting from a vast trove of memories.
This view is shared by some others, such as Gordon Bell, an emeritus researcher at Microsoft who authored a 2000 paper on "lifelogging" and digital immortality and who, in a picture on his personal webpage, appears to have a recorder and a camera hanging around his neck.
In the study, Bell—and his co-author, Jim Gray—theorizes that memories (recordings, written memoirs, videos) could be used to create "faithful avatars" or "smart robots" that would be "indistinguishable from the actual [person], enabling that person to appear to 'live forever.'"
"It's just passive recording. We need more data."
Turchin roughly agrees with Bell's conclusions: He believes that digital immortality will ultimately be enabled by the development of artificial intelligence, and that this might resort to memory logs, social network histories, and—in an unexpected use of governmental snooping—data harvested by state mass surveillance, to bring about a digital model of a person's mind.
Unlike Bell, though, Turchin thinks memories are not sufficient. "It's just passive recording," he said. "Identity is about more than that. We need more data."
To gather that extra information, he has teamed up with Russian neuroscientist and brain hacker Igor Trapeznikov (who, in an email written in Russian, told me he has been carrying a recorder since 2007.) The two are using an EEG machine to record as much data as possible about Turchin's brain.
"We are trying to create a protocol, a series of questions that could be used to elicit the most unique information about a person's brain," Turchin said. "We also decided to ask the subject to do art—drawing, playing music, singing—while we record their EEG. In this way, we can record a lot about their less rational part of mind, about their right hemisphere."
This additional information, merged with the "passive" mnemonic input, would supposedly help the AI of the future create a more accurate copy of an individual.
"My original plan was to build a large computer myself to code my mind, but now I think there's no need to code something personally: We'll have to wait until the creation of a strong AI," Turchin said.
Turchin and Trapeznikov have recently spun their experiments into a company, Digital Immortality Now (DIN). The venture was launched in early May and, according to its website, wants "to provide a cheap and affordable instrument for immortality (potentially indefinite life extension) to everyone by the means of so called digital immortality, that is preserving information about a human being for their future reconstruction."
The company would take care of the EEG recording, video recording of interviews, and data storage. According to Turchin, its services would not be expensive, costing around $1,000. "Otherwise it would be wiser to invest in cryonics," he said.
He added that he was liaising with Cybersuit—a Russian company developing haptic devices and sensitive electrodes that could be used to keep track of larynx micro-movements associated with inner speech—to add more data to a person's bundle.
DIN is also trying to cater to non-immortalist customers by pushing the idea that the service could also work well as a sort of enhanced family album.
"This could be used to preserve memory and information about old relatives, too," Ariadne Arendt, DIN's historian, interviewer, and London branch head, told me. "Many people might have a grandma who is 90, but they can't spend all their time recording what she says. This could be a way to have an extra recording of this person for the family archive."
That may well wind up being the only real use for the gigabits of information Turchin is stashing away, as the whole effort is predicated on the quasi-religious idea that a messianic AI will emerge and solve it all. Let alone the question of whether, even if Bell's "faithful avatars" were created, they could really be considered a form of immortality, or only grotesque copies with little to do with their (dead) originals.
Turchin himself hasn't a clear position but wagers on the possibility that all this might work out in some way. "I think it could be logical for many people to do it," he said. "And I am still thinking about bringing back my classmate."