Future Tense, one of the revolving features on this page, presents stories
from the intersection of computational science and technological speculation,
their boundaries limited only by our ability to imagine what will and could be.
William Sims Bainbridge
Expect virtual immortality through enduring, realistic avatars
based on published work and archived memory.
WHEN I SWITCHED on the computer simulation of my long-dead grandfather,
Dr. William Seaman Bainbridge (1870–
1947), I rather expected he would be
irrational, incoherent, or even insane.
Thus his avatar surprised me when he
looked me coolly in the eye and ordered
me, in a commanding tone of voice, to
explain his situation. I should have realized that a man capable of dissecting
his own father’s skull, hoping to explain his parents’ estrangement as the
result of a brain lesion, would not be
squeamish. I should have remembered
that his nickname was Will.
I told him I had constructed an
NLP/HMM/CBR/AI avatar with information about his life and thoughts,
including his 11 semiautobiographi-cal medical books and 100 journal
articles in which he described the surgery he had performed, his thoughts
about psychiatry, and his principles
for good health. Other aspects of his
personality had come from personal
letters, travel diaries (1918–1941),
and the childhood experiences his
parents described in the books they
wrote about their 1879–1880 world
tour of Protestant missions. For the
kinesics of his avatar, I extracted mo-tion-capture sequences from home
movies. For the dialogue system, the
best I could do was take an average of
two men whose recordings matched
my dim memory of his voice: U.S.
President Teddy Roosevelt and Will’s
cousin, Bainbridge Colby, who had
been President Woodrow Wilson’s
secretary of state. Gently, I explained
that while his wife and children had
all died, many grandchildren, great-
grandchildren, and even great-great-grandchildren still lived.
His avatar stood motionless for a
moment, then looked down, moved
his hand across his simulated face as
if to brush away real tears, and sighed.
“I remember nothing of the afterlife,”
he said. “Does that mean my religious
faith was untrue?” I assured him it was
perfectly natural that he could not recall
Heaven, because all his data came from
before his death. We even knew his last
faith-filled words to his wife, because
his friend, Reverend Norman Vincent
Peale, had published them in a book:
“June, I shall wait for you on the other
side.” I suggested to him that their
souls had been united now for many decades. I did not tell him that June had
died only after Alzheimer’s had apparently robbed her of all memory of him.
After deep thought, he straightened
up, winked at me, and cheerfully exclaimed, “Then we have much work to
do!” Scientist that he was, he bombarded me with increasingly more sophisticated technical questions until he had
a full grasp of the process I had used to
emulate him. He demanded that I show
him modern information technologies, so I gave him a tour of the tablet
computer on which I was taking notes.
When I somewhat condescendingly
explained email to him, he halted my
monologue with a harsh stare, saying,
“But I used email in 1923 to communicate with my mother while I was investigating the Ruhr crisis in Germany!” I
began to protest that this was impossible, but he wagged his virtual finger
and told me that his cable address had
been “bridgebain new york,” and that
a telegram sent from anywhere in the
world would arrive at his office instantly, in the hands of the Western Union
boy. Further, he proclaimed angrily, he
had proposed marriage to June back in
1911 via long-distance telephone, so
he was not the ignorant savage I apparently supposed he was.
Before I could think of excuses, he
compelled me to begin simulating his
mother, Lucy. Although she had died in
1928 and left neither movies nor memories in the mind of any living person, she
had published several books describing
her world travels and her 16 years helping immigrants on behalf of the New
York City Mission Society. This organization was still active, and its storeroom
held her scrapbooks plus copies of her
monthly essays for the Mission Society
magazine. Will said he had selected his
mother for the second emulation experiment simply because her thoughts
were well documented, but I knew better. For years after her death, he had aggressively promoted her fame, forcing
one of his patients to write a sanctimonious biography, and presented copies
of her books to everybody from Helen
Keller to the queen of Belgium.
The full scope of my fate then
dawned on me. Once Lucy had been
resurrected, they would force me to
restore her husband who also had published extensively. He had separated
from her in 1890, so they would adjust
his avatar to make him more docile.
Will’s favorite cousin, “Bain” Colby,
would be next, then all the other deceased writers in the family.
I need to find Will a high-paying job
before he drives me into bankruptcy,
but now I am fully committed to realizing his dream. He promises to resurrect me, after I myself expire.
William Sims Bainbridge ( email@example.com ) is a
sociologist, computer programmer, and information scientist
who does research on technological innovation, religious
movements, and virtual worlds; he currently directs Human-Centered Computing in the computer science directorate of
the National Science Foundation, Arlington, VA.