Saturday, August 1, 2009

Caprica and Personal Identity

The Caprica pilot introduces us to Joseph Adams (later Adama) and Daniel Graystone, both of whom have just lost their daughters in a terrorist action perpetrated by the Soldiers of the One True God. Thus, we're introduced to some of the religious background for the conflicts that help to drive BSG's narrative to its conclusion.

Their daughters are gone. Or are they? Graystone is astounded to see someone who appears to be his slain daughter Zoe while visiting a virtual nightclub. It turns out that Zoe had created a virtual avatar of herself, an avatar who seems to regard herself as Zoe Graystone. This raises all kinds of interesting questions about the nature and possibility of artificial intelligence, the difference between the virtual and the real, personal identity over time, and so on. In this rather lengthy post I simply want to present some of the most philosophically interesting dialogue of this pilot. Consider first this exchange between the avatar Zoe and one of her friends:
Zoe Avatar: What am I without her? She’s me. I’m her. I’m all that’s left of her…

Lacy: I don’t know you.

You grew up with me.

I grew up with Zoe Graystone, and you’re not her, okay? You’re something she created. You’re just a thing.

Zoe promised me I’d see the real world someday. But the crazy thing is, I already know what the real world feels like. I remember it. Just like I remember growing up with you.


It’s true. I’ve never been to your house. Never played in your room. Never puked in your bathroom or put on your makeup or tried on your clothes. I’m not a person. I know that. But I feel like one.
Then, a bit later, she meets her father (or is he?):
Zoe Avatar: Hi, Daddy….

Daniel Graystone: You’re an avatar, a virtual representation of Zoe. Nothing more.

I’m a little more than that. A lot more, actually. I’m sort of her. Crazy as that sounds. I am her. I am Zoe Graystone.

Zoe is dead.

I know. And I’m so sorry about that, more than you can know. She was like… like my twin sister. No, that’s not right, either. She was more than that. We were like echoes of one another. It’s hard to describe.

So, what is this really? Did Zoe hack some kind of rudimentary emulations software or something?

She said it was a combination of hacks and some…

Okay, that’s enough. What was the purpose of this thing?

I’m not a thing.

I’m not going to argue with a digital image.

The human brain contains roughly 300 megabytes of information. Not much when you get right down to it. The question isn’t how to store it. It’s how to access it. You can’t download a personality. There’s no way to translate the data.

But the information being held in our heads is available in other databases. People leave more than footprints as they travel through life. Medical scans, DNA profiles, psych evaluations, school records, e-mails, recording video/audio, CAT scans, genetic typing, synaptic records, security cameras, test results, shopping records, talent shows, ball games, traffic tickets, restaurant bills, phone records, music lists, movie tickets, tv shows. Even prescriptions for birth control...

Yeah, I remember that. You put me up on your shoulders so I could see the band as it marched by, but we were standing under a lamppost, and I smacked my head so hard I saw stars.

Took you to the emergency room just as a precaution.

I hated that.


The lights and the doctors and that smell. But I remember you holding my hand the whole time. You said you wouldn’t let go.

She could have programmed those memories into you. But it is a lot of detail for such a minor event. It’s possible she could have found a way to translate synaptic records into usable data.

She did.

Yes, but a person is much more than just a bunch of usable data. You might be a good imitation, you might be a very good imitation, but you’re still just an imitation. A copy.

I don’t feel like a copy. Daddy...

Can I... May I hold you, Zoe? [Touching. But he’s at least partly doing this to “capture the code Zoe used to create the avatar…”]
Still later in the episode, in a couple of converstations, Daniel speaks to Joseph about the prospect of seeing his daughter again.
Daniel Graystone: Do you mind if I ask you a somewhat strange and personal question? What would you do if you had the chance to be with your daughter again?

Joe Adams: I’d tell Tamara to find those things in life that make you cry, that make you feel, because that’s what makes you human...

Joe Adams [after seeing Zoe Avatar]: Frak! What the hell is this? What kind of sick, twisted thing are you doing here?

There’s nothing twisted about it. And I didn’t do it. Zoe did...

That’s not her. Our daughters, they’re gone.


You know this.

Yes, but what if they could come back?

You’re insane.

Do you know what your brain is, Joseph? It’s a database and a processor, that’s all. Information and a way to use it. And what my daughter figured out was… was how to harness all the information that made her who and what she was. It’s genius, really. She took a search engine and turned it into a way to cheat death.

No, it’s an illusion. You said so yourself.

Yes. You’re right. You’re right. She’s a copy. But she’s a perfect copy in every way.

Still doesn’t make her your daughter.

There’s an axiom in my business, “a difference that makes no difference is no difference.” She looks like Zoe, she talks like Zoe, she thinks like Zoe, remembers all the events of her childhood, has all the same likes, dislikes, flaws, strengths, all of it. Who’s to say her soul wasn’t copied, too?

You can’t copy a soul.

And you would know that how? Hmm? How can you prove or disprove that idea?

Look. I know what I know, okay? And I know you can’t copy a person.

I know that she’s my daughter. I know that she is my daughter, and I know it in the only place that matters. Here. The only difference between her and the Zoe that lived in this house is just that. She lived in this house instead of a virtual world. I want to bring her here. Joseph, I want her to live in this world once more. I want to hold her in my arms, and I want to kiss her, and I want her to feel the sun shine on her face. I want her to see the flowers at the side of the road, Joseph. But for me to be able to transfer the virtual representation of Zoe you just saw in there into a physical body out here, I need a very special, a very particular piece of equipment.

A physical body, what do you mean? Like a robot?

“Robot” is a crude name for what we’re talking about. This is a cybernetic life-form node. It’s artificial skin, eyes, hair, makeup…

It’s still a machine! It’s cold, it’s dead…

Yes, but these are surface details. That’s what we always tell our children, isn’t it? What matters is on the inside... I can bring Tamara back. I can bring her back.

Get out of my way.

You can see your daughter again. Isn’t that worth whatever price you have to pay? If you leave now, you’ll never know for sure. You’ll always wonder. You’ll walk by her room, you’ll see her pictures on the wall, and you’ll ask yourself every day for the rest of your life, whether you had a chance to bring her back.

If I’m wrong, have me beat up, have me killed, I don’t care… But if I’m right... Isn’t it worth trying?

[Joseph is quiet.]
In spite of his objections, Joseph's desire to have his family back is so strong that he goes along with Graystone's plans and he meets the avatar of his own daughter.
Tammy: I’m so scared. What is this place? What’s going on?

Joseph: It’s okay.

I feel so strange.

I know, but you’re fine.

It’s not fine, it’s not fine. This is wrong. This is so wrong. No.

I know, I know, I know. But the important thing is we’re together. We can be a family again.

I can’t remember how I got here. And I can’t remember where I was before now.

It’s confusing, I know. This is gonna take some time.

This isn’t real. This doesn’t feel real, Dad. I don’t feel real. I’m real. This isn’t real...

We can be a family together.

Daddy, why isn’t my heart beating?

[Joseph takes off his VR vizor.]

Joseph: My baby! She couldn’t feel her heart beat!

Daniel: She’ll adjust. She’s probably very confused by everything. It’s only natural.

No, no, it’s not natural. It’s wrong. It’s an abomination.

Well, define “natural.” These glasses help me to see. Artificial limbs and organs help millions to live. You’d hardly call those aids “natural,” but I doubt you’d call them abominations.

That’s not what I mean and you know it.

Ah. Uh huh. You mean, only the Gods have the power over death. Well, I reject that notion. I reject that notion! And I’m guessing that you don’t put too much stock in those ideas, either.

You’re not right. You’re out of your frakking mind.

Obviously, there's a lot to think about here. I'm especially struck by the role memory plays in both Zoe Avatar's sense that she is "the real Zoe" and Tammy Avatar's sense that she doesn't know who she is. Maybe I'll say some more in future posts. Or you can always get busy in the comments section.

1 comment:

Gabriel Harder said...

Such a shame the show wasn't renewed.