The Evolution of The Self

The Evolution of The Self

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Written by Markus Iofcea & Oleksiy Novak, UBS Y Think Tank

Leaving behind a legacy is a fundamental part of human identity. But how will sophisticated online data and revolutions in AI impact material, biological and ideological legacy?

Nature and the environment used to be the main driving forces of biological evolution. At a certain point in time, humanity disrupted this equilibrium. Instead of having to adapt to the environment, our ancestors built tools that enabled our species to circumvent the need to evolve.[1] Centuries of cooperative efforts and tool building introduced the possibilities of space travel, wireless communications, instantaneous information exchange and an exponentially-growing technological frontier. Today, technologies like Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things allow us to track, aggregate and analyse more data about ourselves than ever before. Services like Spotify, Facebook, Amazon already know more about our personal preferences than our closest friends. Based on the accumulated data, these and other ecosystems are building online versions of your identity, or simply put, your Digital Self. For the time being the Digital Self is only a distorted representation of the true self. However, as the world is becoming more interconnected, the number of data points that are able to capture even the most complex elements of the inner identity (emotions, feelings, thoughts) are becoming feasible.[2] It will soon be possible to create, combine and connect high resolution copies of a person’s multiple identities and upload it to a digital archive, essentially constructing a dematerialised version of you, a digital you. When combined with general artificial intelligence, the Digital Self can become more than an aggregation of identities, it can become a self-conscious entity with important implications on society, and in particular on the foundations of human legacy.

Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina

Leaving behind a legacy is a fundamental characteristic of humans. For some, creating a long lasting legacy can even become the purpose of life itself. Human ability to perceive time means that not only do we live in the present moment, but can also recall the past as well as create a vision for the future. The sense of time motivates individuals to leave behind a resonating echo of oneself in the hopes of being remembered even when the physical presence fades into the past. This resonating echo is preserved in the form of the legacy humans leave behind. Legacy can be decomposed into three categories: material legacy, biological legacy and ideological legacy.[3] With recent technological developments, all three constituents are approaching a revolutionary transformation. More specifically, the emergence of the Digital Self will have profound consequences on inheritance, evolution, and ideological foundations of a future society.

Your future grandchildren will inherit a digital version of you

While older generations are still holding on to their physical libraries of music, books, movies and pictures, the same cannot be said for those who were born in the last decade. Today’s youth is born digital and is capable of living in a world that is heavily reliant on technology. The trend towards digitisation will continue with new generations having fewer attachments to physical object. Already today, many individuals are moving towards a growing invisible library of documents, pictures, songs and soon a million other data points. We are all storing a perpetual timeline of information that ranges from the least significant preferences to the most important life moments. As a consequence of such transformations, material legacy will most likely be redefined and become more than just a means of passing on physical objects to new generations. There are drawbacks to the current ways of passing on inheritance across individuals. For instance, physical objects are limited in their use by multiple individuals, meaning that only one person usually receives the inheritance of an item. Physical heirlooms are prone to degradation and can lack emotional connection between the deceased and the recipient. What if a person’s legacy could become something much more meaningful, inspiring, and eternal than a physical object? As underlined previously, human possessions are shifting online, and the presence of digital artifacts is increasing in day-to-day interactions.[4] Our online identities are encompassing all of the digital memories we are creating throughout our lives. These identities contain traces of individualism; that is something that is hardly captured in physical items.

For this reason the Digital Self, the aggregation of all identities of an individual, is becoming the new meta of human inheritance.

Instead of leaving behind a physical object, humans will one day inherit the Digital Selves of family members, friends and acquaintances. Digital selves will serve the purpose of continuing the interactions between the living and the deceased. Human will be able to communicate with the deceased, relive memorable moments spent together, ask questions and even seek advice. Death will most likely transform into a concept involving a gradual shift of states instead of an abrupt end of connection. This continuous interaction could have the potential to alleviate humans of the psychological trauma related to death. But it could also manifest itself into an everlasting yearning for the past. What is clear however is that disputes over who gets to inherit the family heirlooms will diminish. Everyone can have access to the Digital Selves of the deceased due to their ability to be replicated.

Will legacy live on in material objects? Photo credit Dakota Corbin

Imagine a human raised entirely by an A.I. Would he think the same as us?

Up until recently other humans were responsible for the transfer of ideologies to newer generations. Most commonly, individuals built their foundation of thought either through first hand (role models, teachers, parents) or second hand (books, scientific journals, folklore) knowledge transfer. Today’s technological expansion is shifting the balance of how knowledge is passed down generations. More frequently humans learn through interactions with information appliances rather than other human beings. These information appliances enhanced with the power of Artificial Intelligence can make the process of knowledge transfer automated and tailored to each individual’s learning capacity. It is possible to imagine a future in which the Digital Self takes on the role of becoming the teacher since it already knows about the particularities of each individual. Ideological legacy will soon be in the hands of the AI, which in turn can have important consequences for the further development of the ideologies themselves.

The learning process will become more tailored and specialised to an individual’s interests. When the Digital Self knows which are the best parameters to use to enhance a person’s learning experience, the method of knowledge transfer as well as the type of content will likely become more fragmented. A person would not need to rely exclusively on one Digital Self to pass on the information. People who have been recognised for their great achievements over their lifetime could be persuaded to “donate” their Digital Self to humanity. All the knowledge base, character traits that were accumulated by our ancestors, would be available for others to interact with and learn from. Imagine living through life with your childhood idols by your side, allowing you to build truly personal connections with digital mentors.

This would have a profound impact on generations to come, because they would have unlimited opportunities to embrace, study and apply the characteristics of great human beings.

Instead of focusing on the ‘capture all approach’ current education systems are relying on, future generations could start pursuing what really interests them. Although external factors, such as other individuals, will continue to have a strong effect on what new generations learn in their cognitive development, over a long enough period of technological influence it is possible to imagine a society that is connected by a single set of principles that have been passed across generations.

Who will be the teachers in tomorrow’s world? Photo credit Cristian Newman

The descendant of the homo sapiens will exist online

Humans have become the sculptors of their own environment. We are actively involved in creating, modifying, altering and building new paradigms of life. Evolution is becoming increasingly a technological phenomenon and less a biological one. One such example is the extension of human senses beyond their natural abilities. Bio-hacking pioneers like Tim Cannon are using magnets embedded beneath the skin to allow individuals to detect nearby electromagnetic fields.[5] This is just one example among many that merge biological sensory systems with technology. Humans are literally extending their perception of the physical reality with existing senses and are becoming a hybrid of biological and digital systems.

We have already seen how our existing bodies are being modified to become increasingly efficient at what we already are designed to do, but the fact remains that human genes are keeping society on a leash. As much as we continue hacking our bodies with technological innovations, humans are still designed based on biological foundations. And despite all the progress society has achieved in the last centuries, basic natural instincts are still dictating the paths of our lives. Instead of making evolutionary steps how can we achieve an evolutionary jump? If one were to design a completely new being using current and potential future technologies, what would that being look like?

Future Technology & Human Optimisation, VICE Media

The data we are continuously contributing to build higher resolution versions of the Digital Self serves as the foundation for this jump in the evolution of the homo sapiens. Prior to digitisation, extended identity was something that could only be perceived implicitly through a collection of physical objects a person chose to own.[6] Today, extended identity has become more explicit and dynamic since it can actually be visualised within online activity. Identities have become themselves digital objects, that can be copied, upgraded or deleted. This online identity re-construction, combined with artificial intelligence has the potential to create a new form of being, a digital being. A digital being is not simply another form of general artificial intelligence, it is much more than that. Since these beings will be based upon the identities of humans, they will inherit our individuality. A collection of such digital beings, all created from the unique identities of humans, would combine to form a new type of society.

These digital beings would not be creatures of the flesh, meaning that they would have many interesting properties that go beyond the biological constraints of the homo sapiens.

Unlike humans, these entities would not be weighed down by age, they would be able to live indefinitely. The digital property to self-replicate would allow these beings to infinitely venture into different pursuits of life where each copy would take on a different journey. They could create simulated worlds of their own in which they would experiment with possibilities of the universe. Travelling distances would only be limited by the fundamental physical properties, meaning that these descendants of the humans would most likely become an intergalactic species. A society of such beings would exist in multiple shapes, each individual could exist as a single entity, or due to their digital nature they could combine into a single living organism that has the properties of multiple individuals as well.

The upcoming technological evolution will not exist in absolute terms. Most likely our species will expand into different directions. Like a spectrum, there will be a range of possible alternatives from humans that continue existing in their original biological form, all the way to completely digital beings. What is interesting is that evolution will become something that is chosen and not created by chance. Only time will tell how these transformations will be perceived in the future. What is yet to be seen in light of these technological shifts is whether qualities that make us genuinely human (irrationality, emotions, egocentrism) will disappear with time, or on contrary, become even more pronounced and accepted in the future. Will humans become even more human, or will they blend with the machines and converge towards a path of singularity?


[1] Harari, Yuval N. Sapiens: a brief history of humankind. New York, NY: Harper, 2015.

[2] Miessler, Daniel. “The Real Internet of Things.”, 2015.

[3] Rebecca Gulotta, William Odom, Jodi Forlizzi, Haakon Faste. Digital Artifacts as Legacy: Exploring the Lifespan and Value of Digital Data

[4] William Odom, Richard Banks, Richard Harper, David Kirk, Sian Lindley, Abigail Sellen. Technology Heirlooms? Considerations for Passing Down and Inheriting Digital Materials.

[6] Russell W. Belk. “Possessions and the Extended Self.” J Consum Res; 15 (2): 139-168, 1988.



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