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Rest in privacy

Posted by Flux on 

5 February 2024

What’s trending?

Several start-ups have developed technology that enables you to have two-way ‘conversations’ with the deceased, ranging from text messages to holograms. It’s aimed at those in mourning seeking to keep the memory of the departed ‘alive’ by perusing old messages, photos and videos. The technology collects this kind of data and, using AI, is able to simulate responses from the deceased. In December 2020, Microsoft was granted a patent that allows the company to make a chatbot using the personal information of deceased people. You, Only Virtual is an AI company creating chatbots modelled on deceased loved ones. Its website advertises that you “Never Have to Say Goodbye” and the founder hopes that people won’t feel grief at all. The company was founded in 2020, by Justin Harrison who used the technology to create “a virtual mom” after his mother died. HereAfter AI is an app that lets a survivor have a conversation with a virtual version of a loved one. So before you die, you record memories, load photos and videos, after which your virtual avatar is up and running. The app was developed by James Vlahos in 2019 after creating a bot based on his father from recordings made before he died. In 2022, a hologram of 87-year-old Marina Smith spoke to mourners at her own funeral using an AI tool called Storyfile. In a related development, the BBC reported that several decades after he died, James Dean has been cast as a star in an upcoming movie called Back to Eden. 

Why is it important?

Proponents of this technology argue that it is a way to preserve memories and help with grief – if used in moderation. However, there’s a risk that apps like these could keep people clinging to the past, unable to move forward and grow, isolating themselves because they’ve become too involved with a chatbot. “Proximity seeking behaviours [aimed at restoring a closeness with the person who died] may block someone forging a new identity without the deceased person or prevent them from making new meaningful relationships. It might also be a way of avoiding the reality that the person has died – a key factor in adapting to the loss,” said Dr Kirsten Smith, Clinical Research fellow at the University of Oxford. In addition to the debate on the impact of this technology on the mental health of mourners, it also raises troubling questions on the rights we have after we die. According to You, Only Virtual’s founder Justin Harrison, “You absolutely don’t need consent from someone who’s dead. My mom could’ve hated the idea, but this is what I wanted and I’m alive.” There are currently no laws governing digital reincarnation and no way for you to opt out of being digitally resurrected. In contrast, Google’s Inactive Account Manager and Facebook’s Legacy Contact allow living users to make some decisions on what happens to their data after they die.

What can businesses and policymakers do about it?

The existence and success of this digital reincarnation technology suggests that there is an appetite for such services. As such, it represents a business opportunity for entrepreneurs. 

Policymakers will need to draw up new laws to govern postmortem data instead of leaving it in the hands of private companies. Businesses that provide this service should tread carefully and prepare for legislation in the coming years. Regularly review and update your policies to ensure that they remain current and compliant with changing laws and user preferences. Consulting legal experts who specialise in data privacy and compliance is advisable to ensure that your company’s policies and practices align with relevant laws and regulations. Consent should be built into the technology you provide. Provide a mechanism for users to designate a contact or executor who can access and manage their data after they pass away. This should be done with proper authentication and legal documentation. As a society, we should lobby for our post-death rights to be acknowledged. 

By Faeeza Khan

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