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Digital life after death. How virtual personalities help to survive separation from the dead

Digital life after death. How virtual personalities help to survive separation from the dead 1

The first attempts to recreate communication with the deceased became known five years ago. If then, the development of technologies that help to survive the care of loved ones, engaged in small startups, in 2020, the development of such a serious service area became a future plan by Internet corporations.

Many people call the plots of the series “Black Mirror” prophetic: we are increasingly dependent on the ratings given to us on social networks, companies like Facebook are seriously engaged in developing a helmet that reads thoughts, and years ago, South Korean IT players, recreated a girl’s VR personality so that her family could communicate with her. One of the series, “Black Mirror”, is dedicated to the problem of digital life after death, when the heroine ordered an AI robot, completely copying her dead lover.

Nothing good came of it, but this idea is strong and has long been on the surface.

Sociologist Carl Eman of the Oxford Internet Institute for Digital Eternal Life estimates that 3 billion people will die in 30 years, leaving behind social media pages, online media posts, YouTube channels, TikTok audiences and etc. 

He is confident that technology companies will find a way to make money on this. Therefore, he believes, BigTech will offer something like a bureau of ritual digital services, where AI algorithms will mimic the dead or simply charge relatives of the deceased for the preservation of their digital heritage.

A simulation game from Microsoft

Late last year, the software giant was stunned by the news that it had received a patent for the development of a chatbot that could mimic communication with anyone. It was assumed that artificial intelligence algorithms, using machine learning, would behave and talk like certain individuals, using information from their accounts. The developers have noticed that in this way you can play not only some inaccessible to fans celebrity, but even a simple man who went to that world.

“Digital duplicates will suit different subjects of copying, no matter whether they are from the past or the present. Yes, artificial intelligence can mimic a friend, relative, celebrity, fictional character or historical figure,” – it was said in the patent.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Gmail have a feature that will take care of the accounts of the deceased relatives

After a series of publications, the company received a barrage of criticism. In particular, users wrote that the idea looks scary and repeats a series of “Black Mirror”, in which, as we remember, the happy ending did not take place. 

In early 2021, the general manager of artificial intelligence programs at Microsoft, Tim O’Brien, wrote in his Twitter that while the idea remains at the level of a patent and will not be implemented in the near future. He also agreed that the very idea that it would be possible to communicate with a dead person sounds scary.

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But skeptics aren’t sure Microsoft cares about ethics. Rather, the company fears that the “afterlife” chatbot will suffer the fate of failed Microsoft projects – Tay and Zo. These chatbots were designed in such a way that the person who communicated with them acted as a “teacher”. After communicating with people, the peace-loving Tay began to speak sharply in favor of feminists and support the ideas of Adolf Hitler. It is clear that users taught Tay to be rude and radical for fun (it took them 24 hours), but in the end the bot had to be disabled.

Attempt number two was Zo, whose algorithms bypassed hot topics such as politics, religion, human rights. But this did not save the bot – he, like Tay, was negatively affected, for which he was disconnected.

The patent documentation for the new Microsoft chatbot also states that users will be able to train it. Why the company said so, it is unclear, because the two previous developments failed precisely because of this feature.

In image and likeness

Today, there are several startups in the world that offer people to create their own digital counterpart. For example, you can order one on the Eter9 website. Its developers have created a social network based on AI, which is constantly learning from users and gradually creates virtual duplicates for them. By design, a digital copy will be able to “live” after the death of the user and even act on his behalf.

The project offers users a virtual friend who is always there and ready to support both in grief and in joy. The bot appeared as a result of sad events: a journalist lost a person close to her, but still found a way to continue communicating with her. 

She turned to programmers for help, and they uploaded photos, videos, messages and other files related to the person to the neural network. Thus, she was able to survive her departure. Then they decided to develop a project to help people overcome grief, loneliness, depression. Going to the site, you will receive an offer to create your own “replica” and as a result find a virtual friend.

VR-technologies, virtual identity, digital duplicate
VR-double. Korean Chan Ji-sung was able to meet his dead daughter thanks to VR-technology.

Four years ago, programmer James Vlahos created Dadbot for himself and his family when his father was diagnosed terminally ill. While the head of the family was alive, he taught the bot to joke and tell jokes in his own style. When his father died, James decided to create a more serious voice service, called Here After. 

It works on the following principle: the user gives a detailed interview about his life, AI shares the story thematically, as a result, the user’s relatives will be able to talk to him through a smart speaker when he dies.

In the future, digital copies will be easier to create not by collecting data on social networks, but by collecting data directly from the brain using a neural interface. Neuralink, a startup by Elon Musk, is working on this technology.

Posthumous account

Facebook has already thought of everything: in the account settings you can specify what to do with it when you “do not” (the word “death” or “die” service does not use).

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So, if you want your account to be deleted, your loved ones will need to contact the social network administration and notify them of your death by sending a copy of the death certificate or other document (will, obituary, plaque), after which your page will be deleted.

If you select “select account saver” in the settings, your personal page will receive a memorable status, and the user you designate as the saver will be able to post memories from your page.

Twitter also has similar functionality and allows loved ones to ask to disable the account. You can delete your Instagram account or get a memorable status. Gmail allows you to assign an “inactive account manager”. You can also allow your family to use your account after death.

Eternal cyber life

Last year, South Korean TV channel MBC showed a documentary about the possibilities of VR technology. However, the plot shocked many, and a fragment of the program posted on YouTube went viral. The media and social networks discussed how ethical it was to “do this.”

The plot was based on the fact that the development team created a virtual copy of a girl named Nayon, who passed away in 2016, and then Nayon met with her family. To say that the film turned out to be touching and sentimental is to say nothing. The girl’s mother, Chang Ji-sung, wearing a special suit and gloves, was able not only to see her daughter, but also to touch her. 

The rest of the family – a father and three children – watched what was happening from the side, also wearing VR glasses. The meeting of mother and daughter took place in a virtual park, similar to the one where Nyon loved to walk. After talking to the child’s virtual twin, Chan Ji-sung admitted that although the “copy” did not look very much like her real daughter, she was still pleased to feel, see and hear her for a moment.

Microsoft has patented a bot that can mimic the identity of a deceased person, but has faced criticism.

Opinions of the viewers of this film were divided: some sympathized with the family, some doubted the need for virtual communication, which can be addictive, some condemned programmers and television for speculating on feelings.

This idea is criticized not only because of its unethicality, but also because of the high cost, because to create a VR-copy, it takes a lot of money and time. For example, the creators of VR-Nyon spent eight months developing, involving a large team of specialists, a child actor, using Motion Capture technology. Experts estimate the South Korean project at $ 20-30 thousand.

To reproduce a perfectly similar double will cost about $ 2 million.

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