Digital Immortality, The Future of Memory, and Sci-Fi Utopias: An Interview With Dr. Phil Frana

Monday, 07 August 2017 - 3:30PM
Artificial Intelligence
Genetic Engineering
Monday, 07 August 2017 - 3:30PM
Digital Immortality, The Future of Memory, and Sci-Fi Utopias: An Interview With Dr. Phil Frana
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When you sit down with Phil Frana, you better buckle up for a conversation that ranges from the history of artificial intelligence (he's literally writing the book on it) to visions of the future, including uploading our minds to the singularity and 3-D printing our way to a utopian society. Phil is one of the speakers at the upcoming Escape Velocity 2017, the Museum of Science Fiction's annual sci-fi and science event, where he'll be leading a talk on matter duplicators. Ahead of Escape Velocity, we sat down with Phil to talk about sci-fi, tech, and the future.

Outer Places: Tell me a bit about yourself: your background, your interests, and what got you interested in sci-fi.
Dr. Philip Frana: I'm the associate dean of the Honors College at James Madison University, and an associate professor of Interdisciplinary Liberal Studies. I was trained as an historian of science, technology, and medicine and got my first "real" job as an NSF program director at the University of Minnesota's Charles Babbage Institute for the History of Information Technology. Minneapolis was the "Silicon Valley" of the 1960s and 1970s, which is why the Institute is there—Univac and Control Data computers, Honeywell, IBM System/3, and the IBM Blue Gene and Cray supercomputers all came from there.

OP: You've taught courses on transhumanism, virtual worlds, and futuristics. What major changes do you see affecting humanity in the next thirty years? 
Phil: I really think we're going to make tremendous progress on what I call the "totalization of memory" (You might call it "total recall"). We are so fearful of forgetting the most minute detail of our personal lives. We fear forgetting. But we also fear corporations, the government, and other nefarious types using our memories and data against us. We may see a form of digital immortality through mind-uploading (whole brain emulation) in our lifetimes. Reverse engineering the brain to achieve substrate independence—that is, transcribing the substance of the mind and emulating it on a variety of forms of physical or virtual media—is a recognized Grand Challenge of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering...
Digital immortalists imagine all sorts of practical outcomes from their work. For instance, a stored backup mind available for purposes of reawakening into a new body, in the event of death by accident or natural causes (presumably, old minds would seek out new bodies long before aging becomes noticeable). This is also the premise of SF grandmaster Arthur C. Clarke's novel City and the Stars (1956), which inspired [neuroscientist Randal Koene] to take this as his career path at age thirteen. Or, it may be that all of humanity could reduce collective risk of global calamity by uploading all minds to virtual reality. Civilization might be protected on an advanced sort of hard drive buried in the planet's core, away from malevolent extraterrestrial aliens or extremely powerful natural gamma ray bursts.

OP: Perfect segue into the next question—what are some of your favorite sci-fi books, movies, or shows?
Phil: What's the saying? "The golden age of science fiction is 12." I think that's the phrase. Meaning, you never care more about science fiction than when you were that age...I love the sense of wonder and attention to conceptual breakthroughs in 1920s-1960s science fiction. I love our grandparent's science fiction because the authors actually wanted to solve problems and, in the process, make the world a place of bliss. A.E. van Vogt's Weapon Shops time operas and R.A. Lafferty's short story All Pieces of a River Shore are some of my favorites. Somewhere in the late 1960s we began to lose our way—science and technology became as much the problem as the solution. And today, despite all our encouragement of STEM disciplines, we are so very sure the tech is going to kill us all. SF, particularly in film, hectors us into believing that high technologies are the problem. Not the solution. 
...I'm from the Midwest, and so many acclaimed SF authors are from there too. Ray Bradbury is from Chicago; Clifford Simak was a newspaperman in Minneapolis. I've read through his papers in the archives at the University of Minnesota. Robert Heinlein is a legend. He's from the small town of Butler, Missouri. I've visited his house and the public library there named after him. When the aliens first arrive on Earth in Heinlein's The Puppet Masters they immediately suck the brains out of the good people of my hometown: Grinnell, Iowa. Thomas Disch, one of the greatest New Wave SF writers of all time, was born in a crackerbox on the east side of downtown Des Moines. I've been there too and can report: that house should not still be standing.

OP: What are your thoughts on recent sci-fi movies, like Arrival and Ghost in the Shell? Anything you wanted to direct attention to as a scholar or sci-fi fan?
Phil: Harrison Ford needs to stop with the science fiction-fantasy film series comeback routine...I've reached peak Harrison Ford. 
I saw Valerian last week...The dialogue is pretty wooden (like the hardest wood possible, quebracho maybe?) but the visuals are stunning. The scene where the commando jacks into the guard at the augmented reality bazaar is fantastic. Remote control animals is real science. They've done it with cockroaches, beetles, sharks, turtles, mice and rats. That sort of thing. They slip a subcortical electrode implant under the skin and drive the things by push button.
I loved [the] presentation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in Arrival. I've taught the concept in introductory honors classes, and utterly confused my students many times. Sapir-Whorf is all about linguistic relativity. Our sense of past, present, and future is conditioned by many things—our cultural lens, our language, our environment, even our basic biology. We mostly talk about only what we can talk about—what we are preconditioned to talk about. I wish the movie inspired more people to read Ted Chiang stories. He may be the best in the business right now. "The Story of Your Life" (the basis for the film) is for me a super difficult read, you need to be deeply attentive with his stuff, but it's worth the effort. 

OP: You've got an event at Escape Velocity this year where you talk about matter replication. Can you give me a teaser about what that'll be like?
Phil: Sure. I'll mostly be talking about the past and present of an idea we now call "post-scarcity." We are so hungry for a world where automation and radical abundance replace traditional human labor for wages. Even people who think they are against this are probably really in favor of it. We don't need to be defined by the drudgery of our lives anymore; we've actually never wanted to be. A number of commentators have suggested that a Minecraft mindset combined with additive manufacturing tools are harbingers of the post-scarcity economy. I would say that science fiction has been prepping us for a very long time before Minecraft and 3D-printing.
I'll be talking about visions of worlds where machines churn out most material goods, at negligible cost, starting with a 1935 short story by Murray Leinster called "The Fourth Dimensional Demonstrator." In the story, Leinster conjures up a duplicator-unduplicator that exploits the notion that the four-dimensional universe (which includes time) has a bit of thickness. The device grabs chunks from the past and propels them into the present. The protagonist (Pete Davidson) uses the device—which he inherits from his inventor uncle—to copy a banknote placed on the machine's platform. When the button is pushed the note remains, but it is joined by a copy of the note that existed seconds before, exactly when the button was pushed...The machine is used to hilarious effect as Davidson duplicates gold, and then (accidentally) pet kangaroos, girlfriends, and police officers plucked from the fourth dimension.
OP: Anything you're looking forward to seeing at Escape Velocity, apart from your panel?
Phil: My favorite part of EV is the cosplay. As I said on the phone, last year I was moderating a couple of sessions on the social lives of robots and had a cosplay Daft Punk robot sit down next to me and strike up conversations before and after sessions. The girl under the helmet was college-aged and super smart. She asked all sorts of interesting and important questions about why she liked to dress up like a robot. I was flummoxed by her brilliance. 
We are all so much smarter than we give ourselves credit for—and young people ask so much more thoughtful questions than the wise old sages and scholars. Truly. My colleagues could learn a lot from that girl, if they'd just listen and stop lecturing. EV is just the perfect mix of pop culture and scholarship.

Want to check out Phil Frana's talk at Escape Velocity this year (September 1st-3rd)? You can win a pair of weekend tickets to the event, courtesy of the Museum of Science Fiction and Outer Places! Click here to access the giveaway, or send an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. letting us know!

Philip Frana
is Associate Dean of the Honors College and Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Liberal Studies and Independent Scholars at James Madison University. He is author of the forthcoming book The Encyclopedia of Artificial Intelligence from ABC-CLIO. TItles of his recent classes are The Artificial Other: Minds, Machines, and Meaning; Global Challenges, Automation, and the Future of Work; and Creativity, Innovation, and Human Fulfillment. He tweets hourly as @ArtificialOther.
Science of Sci-Fi
Artificial Intelligence
Genetic Engineering