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Digital Immortality

Posted by Flux on 

24 May 2021

Digital immortality refers to the notion of using a person’s digital archive to train a chatbot or digital avatar to behave, react and think like that person after they have passed on. The digital history of a person includes images, voice data, social media posts, text messages and written letters. These can be used to create 2D or 3D representations of the person including a voice.

This technology was featured in an episode of the dystopian TV series ‘Black Mirror’ where a character could continue to chat with her boyfriend after he dies in an accident, by using his social media information.

In December last year, Microsoft filed a patent to allow us to ‘talk’ to a dead loved one through a chatbot trained to mimic them. It would use an individual’s data as opposed to the conventional method of training a chatbot using a wide sample of users. According to the patent, “in some aspects, a voice font of the specific person may be generated using recordings and sound data related to the specific person”. The patent doesn’t specify who the chatbot would be representing, stating that this could be “a past or present entity (or a version thereof), such as a friend, a relative, an acquaintance, a celebrity, a fictional character, a historical figure, a random entity etc.” It should be noted however that Tim O’Brien, Microsoft’s general manager of AI programs, said in a tweet that “there is no plan for this.”

Replika is an AI chatbot service that allows anyone to make their own virtual friend or digital avatar. The chatbot develops a personality based on the conversations that you have with it. While Eugenia Kuyda did not originally set out specifically to create an app, it came about after she lost a close friend in an accident. She used her former chats with him and his online information to construct a digital version of him so that she could say what she didn’t have time to say when he was alive. It was only later that she saw the benefits of a service that would help you express yourself through conversation. According to the New York Times, the avatar acts as a kind of personal confidante.


Above: The story of Replika, the AI app that becomes you

In February this year a South Korean mum was ‘reunited’ with her seven-year-old deceased daughter in virtual reality. Jang Ji-sung lost her daughter Nayeon to blood cancer in 2016; she may be the first parent to meet her child through a VR simulacrum, which took a year to create. The tearful reunion forms the heart-rending climax to the South Korean documentary ‘Meeting You’, which made this meeting possible. “People would often think that technology is something that’s cold. We decided to participate to see if technology can comfort and warm your heart when it is used for people,” said Lee Hyun-suk who led the project.


Above: Mother “reunites” with dead daughter within Virtual Reality

Critics say that this is a form of exploitation, using the dead without their consent and that this could lead to a new form of identity theft. In both Eugenia Kuyda and Jang Ji-sung’s cases, being able to ‘communicate’ with their deceased loved ones helped the grieving process. It remains to be seen if there will be a demand for these artificial humans or whether this will be deemed unethical and declared illegal. Whatever the outcome, with apps like Replika that has had over 5.5 million downloads thus far and a rating of 4.4, it is technically possible for any individual to create their own artificial human right now.

By Faeeza Khan

Do you believe that this technology is good or bad?
Would you want to be ‘reincarnated’ by your loved ones in this way after you die?
Can you imagine a future where this technology is widespread?

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Image credit: 24/7 News Around the World

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