Beyond the Physical: Identity in the Age of AI

Food for Thought

When I connect with someone online for the first time, I often find myself curious about their location, gender, age, race, and nationality. Yet, simultaneously, I question why these aspects of their physical existence matter. A psychotherapist friend of mine prefers meeting her clients in person at least once before continuing sessions on Zoom. Something changes, she said. I also see this with friends I meet through social media.

The advent of AI friends is on the horizon. How will they differ from friends we know only online? Would assigning physical attributes to AI help us relate to them more effectively?

In my 20s, I felt silly identifying with my gender, race, or nationality since I didn’t choose them, but I didn’t care if others identified me as male, Asian, or Japanese. I was indifferent as those attributes were meaningless in my head. In a way, I preferred to exist purely as a concept, which explains my fascination with conceptual art in college.

My father shared a similar disposition. Since his passing last month, I’ve grappled with my muted sense of loss. I don’t miss him as acutely as I expected because I can predict his responses to any question, particularly because he was a logically consistent man. In other words, I’ve already copied him in my head. The fact that his body has turned to ashes seems hardly relevant.

Many people feel they are trapped in their bodies. If liberated, what choices would they make regarding their physical form? Would it be akin to selecting a car? But if given the chance to live eternally without a physical body, why would they ever choose to return to a form bound by physics and biology?

In the near future, you will be able to train an AI model to speak like you so you can live forever, but what problems would it solve? On your deathbed, will you be comforted by the thought of living on through a computer? Your feelings will betray your thoughts. Even if the AI model perfectly replicates who you are, you will perceive it as part of the “Other,” realizing the primacy of your physical existence over your thoughts and the fact that it was your body that was stuck with your thoughts.