THE DIGITALLY LIVING DEAD
Ruwandi Perera reveals how folks are alive and clicking beyond the grave!
Remember the movie P.S. I Love You where Holly’s (played by Hilary Swank) dead boyfriend Gerry (Gerard Butler) plans ahead to help her mourn his loss through a series of letters that steer her to a new life?
If you thought that was romantic to the death, the era of digital resurrection may see you hanging on to dear life.
‘Digital resurrection’ or the pursuit of augmented eternity came about a few years ago when the cofounder of Luka (a startup that built chatbots using AI) Eugenia Kuyda sought to bring her boyfriend Roman Mazurenko back to life after he was killed in an accident.
Having collected all his digitally saved data, she developed a digital footprint to create Romanbot – a chatbot that encompassed Mazurenko’s personality and speech patterns.
Humans grieve in different ways. Some use various means of forgetting the deceased person or seek happiness elsewhere; others repeatedly rehash memories until they find peace with their loss. It is not uncommon for people to read and reread letters, text messages or any kind of personal writing related to the dearly departed.
In this digital age, people who mourn the loss of a loved one may venture online to locate pictures, videos and posts on social media.
Whether it is eerie or not, companies that experiment with digital resurrections – where they build electronic or data-based representations of the dead – are driven by the objective of providing mourners the solace of two-way communication with the dead.
By using personal data (profile, photos, videos, posts, opinions, purchasing patterns, employment details and other important life experiences), and communications such as emails, text messages and emojis that are stored digitally, these companies create a digital approximation of the deceased person.
The application of this can take place in various ways, the simplest being an app enabling grievers to text digital representations of the dead and receive comforting replies similar to that which would be possible if they were alive.
For a more enhanced experience, these digital beings can even be programmed to be part of their mourners’ lives. For instance, grievers of the future will be able to wear virtual reality glasses and headsets to live through real life situations with their departed loved ones – such as taking a walk in the park or sitting down to watch TV.
It may also be possible to interact physically with seemingly realistic avatars of dead persons whereby grievers will be required to wear body suits studded with sensors and actuators. With technology that uses a person’s voice, movements and facial expressions to create as lifelike an avatar as possible, the experience will be… well, virtually real!
Remember Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze’s last kiss in the movie Ghost?
A similar experience may not be too far away!
These digital avatars are fed with so much information that they’re able to mimic their human counterparts, and interact with friends and family, reliving the memories and stories shared during the lifetime of the deceased. From a macro perspective, a collection of digital avatars can also be considered a library of history for future generations – albeit storing people instead of books.
The attempt to keep the dead alive through techno-logy opens many avenues… both good and bad.
For instance, holograms are becoming second nature in the entertainment industry with crowds increasingly gathering at concerts featuring dead celebrities such as Tupac Shakur, Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse.
While this helps celebrities continue their legacy from beyond their respective graves, it also raises concerns over intellectual property rights. Some celebs would prefer to keep topping the charts after death but others won’t. For example, the late Robin Williams has banned all use of his image for commercial purposes until 2039.
This creates a debate as to whether digital avatars – which are more advanced than holograms since they’re literally programmed to talk, walk and behave like real life dead individuals – can be produced without the respective person’s permission.
Also, the implications of augmented eternity – which attempts to download the human mind, recreate it and transfer it to other forms – can be both constructive and destructive. So while it may be amazing to resurrect Stephen Hawking, it might be of conflicting interest to bring Adolf Hitler back to life.
Digital resurrection may be the future of grieving but who gets to decide whether to bring people back from the dead?