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Freud and the New Mexico desert: what if people could download a version of themselves?


A play that looks at eternal digital life, A Dead Body in Taos, looks at ethical issues of artificial intelligence. An accompanying podcast series features Magda Osman, who is affiliated with Cambridge Judge Business School.

The New Mexico desert at sunset.

It’s not too often that academia overlaps with dead bodies in the New Mexico desert, Freud’s theories on ‘brutal’ humanity, and a charity named after a fabled World War II code-breaker. But artificial intelligence poses some huge ethical issues that can create such odd bedfellows.

A theatre production now showing at Wilton’s Music Hall in London (26 October to 12 November) – A Dead Body in Taos – centres on whether estranged daughter Sam can circumvent the normal human grieving mechanism by rebuilding her mother Kath through an algorithm.

Downloading yourself onto a hard drive

The plot is triggered when police find a note on Kath’s body that says: “Sam. Do not grieve. I am not here”. Set against a background of late 20th century American history, the mother “has exercised the ultimate right as a consumer and paid not to die” by downloading herself onto a hard drive and being reborn as a “cyborg version of her 30-year-old self”.

In effect, the play asks: Is her mother really dead? Or is her mind still alive through artificial intelligence (AI) and other digital technology? And, if so, what are the ethical implications?

The play was funded by the Alan Turing Institute through a grant to Fuel, a London-based production company. It was written by David Farr, who adapted John Le Carre’s The Night Manager into a popular BBC television production starring Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston. A Dead Body in Taos was co-commissioned by Warwick Arts Centre and Fuel, with previews held earlier this autumn at the Bristol Old Vic.

Exploring Freud’s theories of people as ‘selfish, brutal, bestial’

Sigmund Freud enters the picture through the play’s exploration of his conclusion that a human being is a “selfish, brutal, bestial animal controlled only by fear and desire”, and how such psychology plays out through the way people can be seduced into “buying a version of ourselves” through technology.

A podcast series related to the theatre production, entitled “The Ethics of Digital Immortality and Digital Ethics”, is hosted by poet, writer and educator Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan. The series is produced by Fuel and also funded by the Alan Turing Institute, whose namesake Alan Turing (1912-1954) was central to the breaking of German codes at the Bletchley Park facility in Britain in the 1940s.

Podcast series examines value systems in a digitally immortal world

The first episode of the podcast series featured Professor Magda Osman, Head of Research and Analysis at the Centre for Science and Policy at the University of Cambridge, which is affiliated with Cambridge Judge Business School. Magda was involved in helping to secure the grant from the Alan Turing institute.

“The way we live is based on us being finite,” Magda says in the podcast. “How do you create a value system in a digitally immortalised version of yourself … and once you’ve got that you say, ‘Well, what kind of society is that going to be?’

“If you have values, then you’re doing things that have consequence and you are accountable…. That is you. So what are you accountable for in a world where there’s nothing at stake?

“How do you insult a machine? To be insulted there has to be reputational stake, but what reputation do you have among other digitally immortal versions of other people. No one’s going to care.”

Collaborating with technology: interplay of humanity and artificial intelligence

The podcast series has also featured academics from King’s College London and the University of Plymouth, and the director of A Dead Body in Taos, Rachel Bagshaw. “This show is about an interplay of humanity and AI,” says the theatre director. “Collaborating with technology is something that I think is really exciting.”