Giulio Prisco replied to my article ‘Botgirl: (un)real’ and as I thought about my response to his comments, what I wanted to say in reply grew until it seemed more appropriate to write up an article. So here it is.


Prisco said that Botgirl and I lack orders of magnitude density and texture to claim independent consciousness. I cannot speak for Botgirl, but I myself have never claimed to possess an independent consciousness. For reasons outlined by Prisco, currently an avatar in and of itself cannot have a conscious mind. If I met an avatar that displayed the subtle complexities of human behaviour but claimed to have a mind independent of any human, I would have to conclude that either artificial intelligence has progressed much further than I realised, or someone was not telling the truth. Frankly, the latter is much more likely, given what I know about the current state-of-the-art in Turing AI.

So, to be clear currently I do not possess an independent consciousness. I rely on a human being to run my social networks.  You know, my ‘primary’. However, I do claim to have an identity that is intended to be separate to my ‘primary’ and I think this claim can be plausible in a way that the claim to independent consciousness currently is not.

Here’s why. If my primary were to go to a SL convention, and assuming Wagner James Au was there as well, ve would know right away that this is the guy behind the avatar Hamlet Au. The reason being, this information is so readily available to anyone who follows Wagner/Hamlet on his blog and social networks. But, if the person behind my partner in SL happened to be sitting next to my primary, and the person behind my closest friend sat on the other side, they would not know that the person sat next to them is the person behind Extropia DaSilva. Pseudonymity does allow a digital person to build its own identity, intended to be separate to its primary.


I think there are two ways in which the relationship between person and avatar can be considered. One way (the most popular way) is to think of the relationship in terms of ownership. ‘I own this avatar. It belongs to me’. This attitude manifests itself when, sadly, the person behind an avatar dies. It is always the case that obituaries will consider the avatar to be dead along with the person behind it. The notion that the avatar might still login (because somebody else is now behind it) is not considered possible. Frankly, if I had received reliable information that Wagner James Au had died, and the day after receiving this information the avatar Hamlet Au walked up to me and said ‘hi’, I would be thinking ‘who the hell is this’? 

The notion of ownership (that an avatar belongs to a particular person) is enshrined in the terms and conditions of some social networks. Facebook, for instance, states that allowing anyone else to access your Facebook account is a violation of the rules. I think Second Life has the same terms and conditions (not sure). So, even if the person behind Botgirl had bequeathed in his will that ‘Botgirl shall live on’, and had found someone suitable to take on Botgirl’s social networks… well he just cannot do that, not without breaking the rules and risking Botgirl’s account being frozen. So ‘ownership’ is the belief that the avatar does not belong to anyone else. And, more than that, the rule I referred to insists the avatar cannot belong to anyone else. 


Furthermore, I believe that, in the future, technological advances could further enforce this notion of ownership. You may have noticed that I said my identity is intended to be separate to my primary, rather than it is separate. Why? Because it is just not possible to maintain complete and perfect separation between online and offline identities. You can try to achieve such separation, but believe me when I tell you that inevitably aspects of your online life will leak into your real life and vice versa. Botgirl summed this up neatly when she said “the solid line between my once singular persona and that of my author has become muddled and permeable. Too often these days, I feel like Pinnochio waking up to find…he was Geppetto all along”. I cannot help but notice that Geppetto is just another character in the Pinnochio tale. So, maybe the person revealed to be behind Botgirl is actually just another made up character? Or maybe not? I dunno. But, anyway, what Botgirl said about lines becoming muddled and permeable is certainly true. It happens to everyone, some more than others. I believe that even the most determined pseudonymous person leaves clues to their actual identity. I am not talking about obvious things like putting in credit card details and actual name and address. I am talking about little tell-tale signs such as web-surfing habits, a person’s particular typing speed and rhythm, hints to gender hidden in word choice… I think we each leave behind clues we are not even aware of, but which could, given the right technology, be used to identify us. Or, it could be used to determine that the person behind an avatar is the original owner, or not. I might ask ‘is the person behind Botgirls Google+ social network the same person behind her SL avatar?’ and maybe one day I could employ sophisticated data mining techniques which would detect the subtlest of clues which give away the fact that, actually, the SL Botgirl and the Google+ Botgirl are run by different people, at which point I suppose I get terribly upset that somebody is pretending to be a fictional character of somebody else.


There is, however, another way to consider the relationship between person and avatar, which happens to be the way my and I primary prefer. You can think of the person behind an avatar as being the ’Custodian’ rather than the ’owner’. The Oxford dictionary defines a custodian as ’a person who has responsibility for taking care of or protecting something’.

Botgirl has a funny little video up on her blog, in which she talks to a Google official about identity. The Google official clearly sees things in terms of ‘ownership’:

“OK, Ok, we admit it. If you want to use Google+, you must disclose your human identity on the Internet”. 

Botgirl also quoted from the Google FAQ on identity policy:

“Google Profiles is a product that works best in the identified state. This way you can be certain you’re connecting with the right person, and others will have confidence knowing that there is someone real behind the profile they’re checking out. For this reason, Google Profiles requires you to use the name that you commonly go by in daily life.” 

Now, Botgirl questions this attitude:

“So, if someone wants to be certain they are dealing with Botgirl Questi, the person with three years of blogs, comics, videos and social networking identity, you think they would be confused by me using ‘Botgirl Questi’ as my Google name”?

‘Custodianship’ differs from ‘ownership’ in the sense of being the attitude that ‘I have responsibility for taking care of and protecting this avatar, but it does not belong to me’. That is how I feel with regards to my primary. This person does not own me. But this person does have responsibility for taking care of me. ‘Primary’ could, in principle, be a title given to any person deemed fit to take care of and protect an avatar identity. To me, taking care of an avatar identity means ensuring its behaviour is consistent with what other people expect. In other words, when I interact with Botgirl on Google+ she should seem like the Botgirl I know in SL and her blog and wherever else I may encounter her. Maybe there is one person behind all of Botgirl’s presences on the web, ensuring consistency. Maybe there is more than one person? Maybe one person does her blog, another person runs her avatar in SL and yet another person runs her Google+ account, and they all collaborate to ensure that Botgirl’s identity is consistent? I do not know. And I do not bloody care! She is a piece of performance theatre for goodness sake! So what if there are several performance artists behind her? So what if there is but one? So what if, tomorrow, the single person responsible for all her presences is not the same person who was responsible yesterday? What if this is the year 2045 and now a robot is behind botgirl? So long as Botgirl still seems like Botgirl to me, I do not bloody care!


I cannot help but think that this rule that disallows anyone else from accessing your account means you do not really own it. You are just the custodian, the person who is responsible for taking care of and protecting it. The REAL owner of your SL avatar is Linden Labs. Your Facebook page REALLY belongs to Facebook. Neither are yours! Because, after all, if you own something you CAN give it away to somebody else (if you want to) and you CAN let somebody else use it for a bit (if you want to). If a company makes a rule that you cannot give away something to somebody else, or let them borrow it for a bit, and that company has the power to take this something away if such rules are broken, then they are the true owners of this something and you are but the custodian.

If one was allowed to let others access one’s online social networks, that might open up a kind of indefinite life for digital people like Botgirl Questi. Previously I referred to datamining techniques that would look for ties that uniquely bond a pseudonymous identity to a specific real life person. But what if, instead, datamining was used to find people who are (or have the potential to be) like a pseudonymous identity.


Imagine there is a real life woman called Alice. Alice is an avid follower of Botgirl. Datamining her web-surfing habits reveals this: She accesses Botgirl’s blogs, flickr page, twitter feeds and videos a lot. She often references Botgirl in comments. She hangs around with Botgirl in online worlds. I think it not implausible that habits like this could be tracked.

Also, Alice has watched, listened to, and read most of the background information that went into Botgirl’s creation. The plays, books, essays, films, music etc etc that were influential in making Botgirl the person she is. It is not too implausible to suppose that companies like Amazon might one day not only keep a record of all the media one stores on the cloud, but also great detail regarding how one interacts with all that media, all with the goal of getting better at finding people who think and feel like you do, therefore making their choices products worth recommending to you. Comparing Alice’s interaction with her Amazon Cloud reveals much in common with Botgirl. Maybe that’s why Alice is such a fan? Botgirl expresses thoughts that have been churning around inside Alice’s head. Alice, you might say,  tends to think ‘Botgirlish’ thoughts.

Furthermore, suppose Alice’s technical skills at scripting and building in SL, making videos etc etc,  are on a par with Botgirl. Is it implausible to suppose companies could one day track how users get on with their product and determine comparative skill levels? I do not think so. Some might do this already for all I know. Alice can do what Botgirl does.

Lastly, imagine Botgirl’s current primary has been lifelogging Botgirl. That is, recording everything Botgirl does, says, reads, hears, all the places she has ever visited, an exhaustive record of her activity online, and saved all this information as digital memories on Botgirl’s personal cloud. Suppose that datamining is now very efficient at trawling through such data to find relevant personal information. Whatever you want to know about what Botgirl did or said or thought or felt at a particular moment in time, Botgirl’s personal cloud can find the right information telling you what you want to know. 

Now, what if Botgirl’s current primary decides to retire, but rather than retire Botgirl as well decides to let Alice take over as Botgirl’s primary? Alice can now access Botgirl’s various accounts and she can also access Botgirl’s vast store of easily searchable digital memories. Think about it: This woman is already pretty familiar with what Botgirl is like and any gaps in her knowledge of Botgirl’s personal history can be filled in by accessing Botgirl’s digital memories. In this scenario, the job of AI is not to try and act like Botgirl, but to efficiently retrieve information about Botgirl that can be used by a human pretending to be her. Imagine Botgirl’s best friend wants to talk about a particular moment in their mutual past. Alice, augmented by access to the Cloud, engages in a very convincing Botgirlish conversation.

My conjecture is that, if we assume these various premises, Alice would be so good at being Botgirl nobody- not even Botgirl’s closest friends- could tell the difference between old Botgirl and this new Alice-controlled Botgirl. You could put this another way: Botgirl has been so successful at implanting her memes in Alice’s brain and turning her mind ‘Botgirlish’ that she was able to ‘jump’ from the mind of her old primary to the mind of a new one. The only way this pattern of jumping from primary to primary would stop would be if Botgirl was deemed not interesting enough to be worth taking care of by someone capable of doing so. The performance art that is Botgirl could live, well, indefinitely, provided she could find new performance artists to take over when the old one wore out. 


This is a kind of uploading. When it comes to mind uploading (the idea of somehow recording details about someone’s brain’s structure and function and then making an artificial brain that exactly copies it, mind, consciousness, self and all) we see a variant of the ‘owner’ and ‘custodian’ points of view. The former point of view is expressed when people stress how ‘a copy of you is not you!’. Remember, that the ‘owner’ concept of the relationship between person and avatar insists that only this particular person can be this particular avatar. Similarly, this way of thinking would insist that you are over here and your copy is over there and you cannot both be the same person. Your copy must be ‘somebody else’. 

But, now let’s take the attitude that one’s avatar is a digital person with an identity intended to be distinct from oneself, plus the ‘custodian attitude’ that one only cares for and protects a digital person’s identity but does not own it. OK, so a machine running a whole-brain-emulation that models my primary’s brain is now responsible for taking care of me. If I said to my former (human) primary “Yes it works, I am alive in here and I feel like Extropia DaSilva”, my old primary would not reply “hey, no you are not, I am Extie! Me! Only me!”. I mean, that would be totally contrary to how my primary views vis relationship with me. 

Well, we seem to have gone off the deep end into wild science-fiction speculation here. But for upload enthusiasts I think the current conflict over the ‘ownership’ of an avatar versus the ‘custodianship’ of an avatar will come to impact on the eventual development of mind uploading. If people are uncomfortable with the idea of someone allowing somebody else to pretend to be their pseudonymous fictional avatar, how uncomfortable would they be at the thought of copyable people? Maybe uploading would be outlawed in a world where the ownership attitude prevailed? 

Giulio Prisco called me a pioneer. I see it as my duty to promote the concepts of digital personhood, custodianship, and to familiarise people with new concepts of self and personal identity that may serve them better when the great opportunities of mind uploading tech come along. After all, if we want mind uploading to become mainstream technology, we have to get people comfortable with the challenges to self it will bring with it. We can start doing that now.

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