Nonprofit seeks immortality through technology

BRISTOL — There’s a saying that, once something exists online, it can’t be destroyed. A photograph posted to a Facebook account is logged in search records and Internet caches. Pull it down, if you like, but know that a digital copy is probably pinging around in the ether, like it or not.
In a sense, that information is immortal.
But what if immortality through technology didn’t just apply to photographs or old Web sites, to online dating profiles and MySpace blogs? What if we could preserve personalities, and individual consciousness, through the same tools we now use to chat with friends and e-mail relatives?
Call it far-fetched, but that concept — that technology may just be the key to immortality — is the idea behind research being conducted by the Terasem Movement Foundation, a Bristol-based nonprofit.
Led by managing director Bruce Duncan and manager of cyberbiological systems Nick Mayer, the organization is exploring how “mind files,” or digital repositories filled with information about individuals, can be used in the future to recreate personalities.
They’re not developing the software that could reanimate these “mind files,” but Duncan and Mayer believe that artificial intelligence software could advance to the point where the data in these files could be, in a sense, brought back to life.
They are doing this in a project called “Lifenaut,” online at www.lifenaut.com, where users can begin logging data about themselves.
Duncan and Mayer admit that, at first, some people are taken aback by the project.
“People tend to fear the unknown,” Mayer said. “And I think it’s unfortunate that in the media artificial intelligence is always portrayed in this negative light.”
But Mayer pointed out that, though the plans sound “sci-fi and crazy at first glance,” there is a lot of academic research happening in the fields of personality capture and machine consciousness.
Duncan uses another approach to ease others’ ambivalence about the project: He talks about the Terasem idea as another way to “back up” our lives, just as computer-users back up copies of their documents or photos. That “backed up” version of their lives in pictures, documents, movies and sounds can be looked back at throughout their lives, then, as a sort of “digital bridge” from one part of their life to another.
When it comes to concerns like privacy, Duncan warned that no one should put anything online — be it on Lifenaut or Facebook or another service — that they don’t want the world to know about; even the Pentagon has had security breaches, he pointed out, and information privacy can never be guaranteed 100 percent.
The trick, he said, is to be thoughtful and careful about what one puts online.
Though Duncan and Mayer are both confident that artificial intelligence software isn’t far from the point where it might be able to make sense of these “mind files,” they point out that this experiment does have concrete benefits to offer. At the very least, collecting information digitally creates a “digital time capsule” for individuals — and their families — to reflect back on.
That could mark an enormous change in the way society thinks about the roughly 250,000 people who die every day, Duncan said.
“There’s no record. There’s no information about their rich lives that they lived or the lessons that they learned. There’s no way to pass that information on to future generations, even if it’s just with your family,” he said.
Terasem Movement Foundation, which has had an office in Bristol for several years, is getting ready to launch a new Web site this quarter, and it’s also opening up a new avenue for people to preserve their identities: the “bio file.” For $1 a day, the foundation will collect and store information about a person’s genetic makeup. That information could theoretically be used to generate a physical home for a “mind file” in the future, a body of sorts generated by stem-cell technology or robotics.
That’s much further down the line, Duncan and Mayer said. But the future is just what intrigues them most. They’re beginning to experiment with new headsets that monitor brain waves as a way to enrich the “mind files” that individuals create.
That said, Duncan also keeps an eye on the past. What he and Mayer are working on isn’t so divergent from the evolution of expression, he said. He likes to think of the Lifenaut project as the next step on a timeline that began with cave paintings.
“It transformed into more and more elegant ways of people expressing what was important in their environment,” Duncan said. “In some ways we’re paralleling that same kind of course in trying to come up with ever more and more robust ways and rich ways to capture information that’s important to them.”
The Terasem Movement Foundation is located in a small office on Prince Lane, across the parking lot from the Shaw’s grocery.
But soon it will be moving to more expansive quarters. A separate nonprofit, called the Terasem Movement Transreligion Inc., purchased a Bristol home at 2 Park Place on Dec. 15, 2009, for $525,000. Alan and Sonja Cleland of Naples, Fla., sold the home to the organization. Bina Rothblatt, a founder of the movement who also has a residence in Lincoln, signed the property transfer documents for Terasem Movement Transreligion.
The Terasem Movement Foundation — the operation run by Duncan and Mayer — is a separate nonprofit and private operating foundation. But both the transreligion organization and the Terasem Movement Foundation will occupy the Cleland house, and both were founded by Martine Rothblatt, a millionaire entrepreneur who is the driving force behind the Terasem family of organizations.
According to 2008 tax records, Martine and Bina Rothblatt made a personal contribution of $515,000 to the Bristol-based Terasem Movement Foundation.
Rothblatt, who is the president of the Bristol-based Terasem Movement Foundation’s board of directors, launched both Sirius Satellite Radio and one of Maryland’s largest biotech companies.
She founded the Terasem Movement Foundation in addition to the transreligion movement, which believes that, so long as information about a person exists, that person is not dead. The religion, according to its Web site, is “beyond the scope of all existing religions.” The religion believes in God, “partially so,” and blends prayer, visualization, meditation and mental stillness and yoga throughout the day.
Duncan said that he is confident that both the Terasem Movement Foundation and Terasem Movement Transreligion will be good neighbors in Bristol, and that residents can be sure that the house will be well taken care of for a long time to come.
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at [email protected].

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