The Evolution of The Self

The Evolution of The Self

The Evolution of The Self

Click here to view original web page at The Evolution of The Self

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.


Evolving into the Digital Age: Protecting Intellectual Property

Evolving into the Digital Age: Protecting Intellectual Property

While society has evolved from an Industrial to an Information Age over the last hundred years, we’re now operating in a Digital world where technological innovations and intellectual property reign supreme. This fast-moving digital environment–including web, mobile and social media–requires a proactive stance on developing and protecting digital innovations as the global marketplace becomes even more competitive and organizations run the risk of losing critical innovations as others move quickly to steal ideas if the opportunity exists.

While digital strategy is driven largely by marketing or IT departments, every digital asset of the company is and should be treated and protected as an intellectual asset, but today these assets are  often overlooked.  Consider the long list of marketing or IT developments at your company.  Everything from user interfaces, apps, social networking functions, personalization options on web pages, subscriber perks, wi-fi offerings, e-commerce solutions, bridging offline and online experiences and new products and services related to digital activity result in digital assets that an organization deploys.  But, are you taking the next step to protect them or leaving them out in the open to steal?  Worse, are you infringing on someone else’s intellectual property (IP)?   

Innovations at Lightening Speed – Are You Giving It Away?

Today, digital assets can be protected by utility patents, design patents, copyright law and trademark law. Typically, as these innovations occur at such a rapid pace, they are not captured and translated into protected digital assets.  Further, as the use of digital strategies is exploding and the creation of digital assets is a relatively new concept, most organizations have yet to build a formal business case and required methodology for protecting these assets.  Compounding the issue, much of the innovation work is done in collaboration with outsourced vendors in marketing and IT, often in a vacuum, so there isn’t a legal or other IP advocate to even ask the question: “Should we protect this?”.  Finally, much of the technology used to develop these innovations is often open sourced which creates an additional layer of confusion and often one that the legal team won’t touch.

The world is beginning to change in response to protecting their digital assets.  Patent trolls have largely emerged in the digital and technology space attacking companies from Starbucks to Cisco for wi-fi offerings, web functionality and what was previously considered open territory for marketers and web designers. And, these trolls are finding loopholes and great financial gains. Today, the trolls monitor major innovative initiatives by world-class organizations and copy and develop their own innovations around successful ones, improve them, and then ultimately file a new patent for it.  And then in a crazy twist, they send these same organizations a cease and desist letter and ask for a license fee.  Why aren’t organizations protecting these same assets to defend themselves and even use them as additional sources of revenue?

Building and Protecting a Digital IP Portfolio

Most companies need to start by identifying the pipeline of ideas and then turn the right ideas into valuable assets.  The innovation pipeline of digital assets is likely already alive and well in most organizations but they aren’t tapping into it.  So, the first step in building a Digital IP Portfolio is to audit where that innovation is occurring.  Understand when it is outsourced to vendors and assess whether it should be retained, shared or given away.  Once you know where the innovation is occurring, it’s time to funnel it into an IP evaluation pipeline.  At that juncture, an IP business strategy team (comprised of IP strategy experts, IP lawyers, business managers, IT managers and marketers) can evaluate its potential use and strength.  Is it a good defense play against trolls or other competitors?  Is it something you can license to others?  Is it something you just want to ensure you have and your competitors don’t? By assigning values and business goals to all of these assets, you can then channel them into a protection process with budgets and clear return on investment goals.

And, the importance of having a multi-disciplined approach cannot be overstated.  Generating valuable digital assets is not just a legal or IP function, it requires understanding and contribution from other facets of the company that can identify value proposition and weigh in on risk/reward.  Digital is new and evolving and critical thinking about its value proposition is essential. Many digital assets are not worth protecting if it won’t last beyond the next fad.  But others are.  That’s why Facebook, Google, Adobe and others have become some of the top patent filers in the world.  They file for much more than just devices and consider every innovation a potential asset both offensively and defensively.

Once digital assets are channeled into protection they can then be redistributed back out to spur innovative thinking and evaluate licensing or leverage potential.  While many companies don’t see themselves as technology companies, they are quickly becoming so with their digital platforms.  From retailers to entertainment and consumer goods, soon all companies will be a digital or technology company to some extent.  If you don’t own and protect those assets, someone else will and use it against you.  The time is now for savvy IP and technology professionals to identify an untapped resource – their digital assets.

Digital death is still a problem. A widow’s battle to access her husband’s Apple account

Ch II : Planning For The Digital Afterlife

Transferring property, wealth, assets, and family heirlooms from one generation to another has always been a primary focus of proper estate planning. The electronic and technological innovations of the twentieth century, society’s reliance on the Internet and electronic commerce (“e-commerce”), and the growth of cloud computing have given rise to a new digital world of assets which may be accessible across the world through a variety of mediums. Due to their importance in our everyday life, financial and sentimental value, and continuing growth, digital assets should be considered as a part of any estate plan. Digital assets and online accounts have the potential to continue indefinitely. As with any asset that can exceed the lifespan of the original owner, estate planning for digital assets is a vital part of the preservation of one’s legacy and property disposition. Many individuals unknowingly leave a significant amount of digital assets unaccounted for after death. For example, by the end of 2012, over 30 million Facebook users have died, leaving no directions as to the handling of their accounts. Failure to consider digital assets as part of the estate planning can result in loss of items that contain sentimental and financial value for the deceased relatives. According to a 2011 McAfee study, the average Internet user places a value of $37,438 on their digital assets,3 while a U.S.-based Internet user values their digital assets near $55,000.  The growth and development of the digital world has also changed the manner in which businesses operate, store information, market products, and reach consumers. The U.S. e-commerce industry is valued at nearly $225 billion.  Today, businesses often rely on a wide range of digital assets to ensure a strong web presence through online storefronts, e-commerce services, and cloud-based products, as many consumers expect businesses to have both brick-and-mortar locations while offering online access. These digitized assets are crucial to the company’s success and functionality and, at the same time, represent the growing digitalization of business assets. The average business insists that up to 20% of its digitally stored information is critical to operations. This percentage is likely to increase over time as companies continue to rely upon electronically stored information. Accordingly, proper estate planning and business succession plans are needed to protect and manage digitized business assets. Digital assets, without a doubt, add a new wrinkle to the already complex legal practice of estate planning. Digital estate planning can be especially problematic because digital assets are often difficult to locate without proper guidance from the decedent. Without a well-designed digital estate plan, locating and disseminating digital assets is akin to searching for buried treasure with neither a treasure map nor a shovel. Further, accessibility and transferability issues can arise as these digital assets are often spread across various social networks, email accounts, online service providers, and digital devices. Providing access and location information regarding digital assets via wills creates security concerns as their location and passwords may become public.

The expansive nature of digital assets and the aforementioned issues surrounding this novel area of law triggers the need for more precise and well-developed asset management systems. This Essay defines the scope of digital assets, discusses unique challenges digital assets provide for traditional estate planning, and concludes with a viable strategy for the creation of a well-developed and manageable digital estate plan