*This post may contain some spoilers* for Black Mirror Season 4, but honestly, you should’ve seen it by now. If you haven’t, I implore you to binge watch it tonight and then soak up this article on the digital afterlife.
We like to speak about the unspoken, and what better way to do this than to enter the pits of a nightmarish (or heaven-like) technology-led universe? Each week, we’ll be approaching a Tech Taboo topic that has caught the attention of our society for its potential to benefit or harm us. From provocative product launches to digital dangers, this series is called Tech Taboo for a reason…
*This post may contain some spoilers* for Black Mirror Season 4, but honestly, you should’ve seen it by now. If you haven’t, I implore you to binge watch it tonight and then soak up this article on the digital afterlife. Virtual immortality is something that has been toyed with since the mid-noughties, but today where we live in a world of talking to chatbots being relatively normal, our technical capabilities of testing digital resurrection is being challenged more than ever before. Is the digital afterlife a way of cheating death? Or is it a comforting digital graveyard?
“The human mind is virtually unexplored. We have no idea how consciousness works. But the brain is still a machine so it’s a matter of tinkering with it until we work it out.” – Zoltan Istvan, Transhumanist.
Dead or Alive?
As seen in the latest series of Black Mirror, episodes USS Callister and Black Museum explore the scenario of how our brains can be read, transferred to the cloud and revived digitally as avatars or robots. Whilst there are several startups who are using AI and brain-computer interfaces to resurrect the dead on digital, we are still too early in the game to create technology as advanced as what’s seen in Black Mirror. The concept of speaking to the dead via chatbots and post-scheduling tools does sound rather dystopian, so I can’t help but ask, just why?
The way we cope with death has never been rational – from storing a loved one’s leather jacket in the loft or talking to a pot of ashes on the mantelpiece, our way of coping is both weird and wonderful. So how is this any different to talking to the deceased through a chatbot? Whilst I think that certain individuals have created a digital resurrection product for helping society to deal with death, I think the real reasons are far more ambitious than that. Every generation since time began loves to challenge and invent. And what greater fantasy is there, than defying the ‘inevitability’ of death? In some way, it feels like digital resurrection doesn’t bring back the dead, but it sure is the closest thing to it.
“People are more honest when conversing with the dead” – Eugenia Kuyda
Who are the Frankensteins?
Eugenia Kuyda launched Replika after her best friend Roman Mazurenko passed away. Searching for a way to preserve his memory, she ended up memorialising him as a chatbot. By asking friends and family to share his old text messages, Kuyda then fed over 8000 lines of text into a neural network built by developers at her co-founded AI startup, Luka. What she and many others discovered, was that they were more open and honest as they felt wholly comfortable talking to ‘Roman’. In another case, a Portuguese startup called Eter9 is a social network that uses AI to learn from its users and create a virtual self, which then mimics the user and lives on after he or she dies. So in theory to create an authentic virtual self which lives eternally online, you have to interact with the social network more. Does this sound like a vicious cycle to you? Yes, and no.
What the Future Holds
A couple of years ago, a statistician claimed that the number of dead people on Facebook is expected to outnumber the living on the social network by 2098. If we go with this statement and imagine that all their profiles were turned into memorials (something which is already happening), won’t we all be resting together in a giant virtual graveyard? Whilst some may question the morals of pursuing the digital afterlife, I think it’s only going to get bigger. As we spend more of our time online, our digital assets become even more important – many solicitors now include a clause about them in new wills. As such, flashy startups will enter the sphere and attempt to advance cyber eternity, to apparently solve the ‘problem of death.’ It’s fascinating to see fresh startups implement a range of tech mediums to make us live on – and I don’t think we’re going to stop there.
When we asked our in-house tech supremo, Jo Rees, about digital immortality, he said:
“I can’t help but feel that this is pretty messed up. If a loved one dies, just remember them in an organic way. I can see the digital afterlife being interesting for legendary public figures such as Einstein or Stephen Hawking, but for close family and friends? Not so much. There are certain things AI is fantastic for, but death isn’t one of them.”
Let’s see what the future holds.
Editor’s note: A number of themes in this article touch upon grief, something we know all too well. For the last 6 months we’ve been working with the team at Minds for Life, helping to launch a whole new way of counselling. Read here to find out a little more.