We exist in a time where we can create online memorials, hold a virtual memorial service, and even send digital messages after we die. Is the next step in our technological evolution having the dead talk back using technology like Artificial Intelligence (AI)?
For as long as humans have been cognizant of their mortality, there have been those amongst us searching for a way to avoid death—to become immortal. Every age of humanity has shared myths, legends and theories around life, death, and how to achieve immortality. With today’s ever expanding technological landscape, scientists are finding a solution to death not through ancient alchemical means, but through digital techo-science. Specifically, the creation and advancements of AI and technology.
Digital Immortality is what it sounds like: a means to avoid death, decay, and disease through either physical cybernetic improvements, or the transference of consciousness to a digital or robotic form. But how likely are we to achieve digital immortality? What are the benefits? What are the drawbacks?
To some, technological immortality may seem far-fetched, but the technology is closer than we may realize.
The future is now(ish)!
Digital Immortality? AI and the Future of Death
The Development and Hope of Digital Immortality
You cannot explore digital immortality without beginning with the Transhumanist movement. TalkDeath co-founder, Dr. Jeremy Cohen offers a great definition in one of our earlier articles Transhumanism: Can Technology Defeat Death?:
“Transhumanism is a movement that aims to transform the human condition by developing and making available sophisticated technologies to enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities in order to enhance and extend human life. Transhumanist thinkers and activists study the potential benefits and dangers of emerging technologies that could overcome human limitations (such as aging, disability, and sickness), as well as the ethics of using these technologies.”
Transhumanists have played a leading role in developing technologies for radical life extension, AI research and development..
Martine Rothblatt is one of the most recognizable and outspoken de facto leaders of this decentralized community, and believes in a future where death and disease are avoidable. The way to accomplish this is through mind cloning, also known as ‘the transfer of consciousness’ or ‘mind uploading’.
In 2004, she helped found the Terasem Movement Foundation in Bristol, Vermont. The foundation works to create a conscious digital version of a person by combining detailed data about the person, called a ‘mindfile.’The hope is that future software called ‘mindware’ will allow us to interact with and evolve this digital consciousness.
You can upload your data to a mindfile through the Lifenaut website. This data includes photos, videos, and text-based files that help the mindfile develop into a version of you. The end goal is to have it so the mindfile grows and develops as you grow and develop. The hope is when you eventually meet your biological death your consciousness will continue on in the digital realm. If accomplished, others could interact with you through a computer monitor, or even a robotic version that imitated your old body, including synthetic skin.Rothblatt even claims that when our physical body dies, our digital avatar may go through a moment of adjustment as it realizes its physical body is gone.
Rothblatt dreams of a day where we would create these versions of ourselves while we are alive: it would grow as we grow, then when we physically die our consciousness would live on in this digital form free of disease, aging, and the ultimate goal—free from death.
Digital Immortality, Grief, and Legacy Building
There are other companies and organizations that have been working on different forms of digital avatars, not so much for the purpose of digital immortality, but more for legacy building and assisting with grief.
A few years ago, Shoah Foundation created Dimensions in Testimony that “enables people to ask questions that prompt real-time responses from pre-recorded video interviews with Holocaust survivors and other witnesses to genocide.” This project combines advanced filming techniques, specialized display technology, and new natural language processing to create what they term as an “interactive biography”. Each survivor was asked thousands of questions to allow for a variety of responses to answer a multitude of questions. But, they are not what Rothblatt would consider a digital immortal as they are only a recording of a specific set of data. Whereas a digital immortal avatar would be able to have the ability for full, complex interaction and have a consciousness (which is defined by many transhumanists as an emergent property of brains).
The goal of Dimensions in Testimony is for legacy building, but the creators behind these holograms also have ideas on how to engage with grief. The company behind this work is Storyfile, and they recently came back into the media limelight with an interactive video of Marina Smith, co-founder & CEO Stephen Smith’s Mother. Marina was the co-founder of The National Holocaust Centre and Museum, and at her funeral her family got the opportunity to talk to her and ask her questions from beyond the grave.
Storyfile creates these avatars by recording video of the living person answering hundreds of questions; Marina answered 250 questions for her avatar. When someone approaches the avatar and asks a question, the AI listens, then goes through all the potential answers and selects the right answer! Instead of the avatar being a form of strong AI, the AI is like a virtual librarian working in the background finding you the right answer to your question. Storyfile is currently in the process of creating an archive of avatars of famous people. You can go to their website and talk to the dead right now through their conversational gallery!
Other companies are catching on to this trend. Amazon has been working on an experimental Alexa feature where you can program it to narrate a story with the voice of a dead loved one. Imagine Grandma being able to read bedtime stories to her great-great-great grandchildren. Microsoft secured a patent to develop a chatbot version of a digital avatar complete with the deceased’s voice. This project is very similar to Storyfile, but voice only with no video. HereAfter AI offers you the ability to record stories about yourself and pair them with photographs to create an interactive avatar that your loved ones can ask questions to.
Then you have Eternime, which seems to be a combination of a legacy building, grief support, and digital immortality. Their methods are also very similar to how Rothblatt envisions the creation of digital avatars, with a combination of data mining and personal one-on-one uploads of information from you to your avatar.
The creators of Eternime want you to think of the avatar as your personal biographer. Over years, even decades, you would feed it information through your social media, email, smartphone, and through small regular chats between the avatar and yourself. Eternime compares this work to a tamagotchi.
“Your avatar will start like a tamagotchi. It will only have small bursts of intelligence in the beginning, but the more you talk to it, and the more information you give it access to, the smarter it will become. Think of it as a kid who has to learn a lot until he/she turns into a beautiful human being. … The avatar will replace diaries and become your main path to personal development. It will help you reflect on the events in your life, to recall the memories you never wrote down, and to ask yourself the right questions. It will make you a better person along this process, and you won’t have to worry about what you leave behind.”
In short, it will replace the current methods of legacy building with the end goal of having a fully interactive avatar your children and even great-great-great-great grandchildren could talk to. Their ultimate goal “is to preserve the thoughts, stories and memories of entire generations and create a library of human memories, one where you could ask people in the past about their individual or collective experiences and thoughts.”
A future where we coexist with digital avatars may seem a bit too fantastical and out of reach, but there are more reachable goals. Improvements in healthcare, including advancements in cybernetic prosthetics, are connected to transhumanist research. Some researchers are working with Nanotechnology to help fix and even replace old or damaged cells. A major focus on this work is to find cures for diseases like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. There are already examples in nature of regenerative cells, the latest being breakthroughs in better understanding how the Immortal Jellyfish earned its name. Creating tech to imitate the Immortal Jellyfish’s regenerative process is part of the work towards Digital Immortality.
The Darker Side of Digital Immortality and its Implications
What are the drawbacks of Digital Immortality? Can it ever be achieved? Researchers and activists from the transhumanist movement would say yes, and if you look at the history and development of technology even over the past 50 to 100 years there have been ideas and theories brought up that seemed completely uncanny and impossible at the time, but are now commonplace. Imagine describing the internet to someone in the 1970s, or smartphones. Just because something seems fantastical and impossible now does not make it so later.
The Existential Questions
The goal of digital immortality is full transference of your consciousness to your digital avatar and/or a computer simulation. But is it actually possible for your consciousness to be transformed into a digital avatar? The answer may come down to what you consider consciousness. If you consider it to be a collection of quantitative information and data, then it is not out of the realm of possibility to transfer your consciousness virtually. Easy, no. Possible, yes. But, if you consider consciousness to be something more, something perhaps intangible, then it is far less likely that our future will be filled with immortal digital versions of the dead.
Could our minds handle existing beyond our physical death? Will we grow and evolve through experiences and interactions well beyond the limitations of our biological lifespan? If we lived forever, even in digital form, what would we become? What would happen if we got stuck in a repository somewhere and no one interacted with us? Even more likely, what if we got stuck on an out of date piece of technology that could not be accessed anymore? It would be like the digital version of The Cask of Amontillado: entombed alive, and encased in outdated technology. On a slightly less doom and gloom note, we could end up like the people in Her, having digital companions who one day outgrow us. Only these digital companions would be digital immortals, and not just AI evolved on its own terms.
Is a Digital Immortal Merely a Copy?
If you believe consciousness is more than raw data then a digital avatar would always only be a copy, and never a transference of your consciousness. Many current projects out there for Digital Avatars are only as good as the data that is shared with the avatar, and that will always be limited. We never put our full selves on the internet, and a lot of what we do share is edited and reflects an ideal version of who we actually are. This would mean any digital avatar, no matter how advanced, would not be the same as talking to a real person. There would be no nuance and complexity of emotion to these avatars. It is basically just an interactive archive of the data, and not who you were as a whole living person. Which is wonderful for legacy building, recording history, and archiving part of the human experience, but that may not be enough for digital immortality.
If this sounds a bit Black Mirror to you, it is because there is an episode titled “Be Right Back” that explores this very idea. In this episode, a company creates an interactive avatar based on all the online data the deceased has left behind. Think social media posts, emails, google searches, text messages, videos, voice memos, etc.. If you have not watched this episode, I must warn you there are spoilers up ahead.
Unlike the hopeful aspirations of companies like Storyfile and Eternime, the Black Mirror episode has a darker tone and explores how these interactive avatars could complicate grief, and even harm the bereaved. The main character loses her husband in a car accident when they are still very young. Consumed by her grief she decides to try this interactive avatar, and even takes it further with getting an android version of her husband based on this avatar. This all ends up causing more harm than good, as it allows her to pretend her husband is not actually dead and she becomes isolated avoiding anyone who is still living. She soon realizes that the android is only a shadow of who her husband was in life, and it is hurting her ability to heal and grow. She has to confront the reality of her husband’s death, and take time to grieve so she can grow into a new phase of her life without him.
There is still not enough evidence to tell us either way what the impact of digital immortality will have on the bereaved, or society as a whole. Realistically, it will be different for everyone. Some people will embrace avatars like the ones created by Storyfile, and even Terasem’s Digital Immortals, while others will feel very differently. For some, death should be final, and speaking to the dead through a digital avatar may be upsetting emotionally and spiritually. Either way, we are moving forward, and the way we approach our death and grief will inevitably change as it has done throughout any cultural shift in history.
Death, Data, Digital Privacy and Privilege
We currently exist in a time of Big Data. We create so much digital information, and we often do so without even realizing it is being recorded, stored, sold, and potentially used against us. Rothblatt believes it to be possible that one day a mindfile could be created by all the data we create on the internet, and companies would spring up with their mission to collect and source out that data. Where is the consent for the use of this data? We already exist in a world where data mining and surveillance occurs without our full consent or realization of its full scope. Governments have full scale data surveillance of their citizens that can inspire anyone to want to move to a cabin on top of a mountain and wear a tin cap.
There are safety nets in place, of course. Libraries and Archives are some of the safest places for your data and information. There are governmental bodies dedicated to digital privacy and protection, and many corporations claim to follow suit. But there is no guarantee that your data will be protected. Technology advances, hackers get smarter, and companies can often end up with outdated policies. How comfortable would you be knowing that the data you created when filling out forms to purchase something was being mined to create a digital avatar for after your death? What would stop someone from hacking a virtual persona and using it to make dangerous political decisions? There are already red flags being raised about the dangers of Deep Fakes. Imagine a deep fake that was fully interactive and evolved and was taken over and used for nefarious means.
There is also the issue around consent of use. Even if you create a digital avatar for a specific purpose, it can still be used for something else after your death. There are no protections that exist right now to ensure that your wishes for your avatar would be respected after you have died. We would have to renegotiate laws around data privacy and collection and create new laws to govern and protect digital immortality.
Practically speaking, who is going to store and maintain these avatars? Digital information management and archiving is a career, and requires a specialized and evolving skill set. It is also a misconception that a digital artifact is immune to decay, and older data can become inaccessible simply because the technology needed to access that data is no longer operational.
The Privilege of Digital Immortality
If contemporary life offers us any clues, there is a high likelihood that those who will have access to digital immortality will be the most privileged classes, leaving us with pre-selected digital avatars from the 1%. The history of other burial practices, including but not limited to gravestones, hearses, and even burial, also privileged the wealthy classes. How does race and gender play into who gets access and how? What about this idea of ending disease and disability? Do we really want a world where people with disabilities are looked upon as something to be made clean and pure through technology? What happens if only a select few can access digital immortality, and the others are left behind? What kind of divisions would this lead to? Could it further isolate the people with disabilities, BIPOC, and people of different genders? These are all difficult questions with unclear answers, but we are going to need to contend with them sooner rather than later.
To Die or Not To Die? Should that even be a question?
Wanting to live forever is not something we all will want. People who support the Death Positivity Movement, embrace death as a natural part of existence. The cycle of life and death is natural, and some may consider Digital immortality to be breaking away from the laws of nature. What would a world look like if we did not die? The hunt for immortality can seem to many as a way to avoid the unavoidable: a form of death denial. Part of fully embracing your life is to embrace that one day you will die, and this knowledge can help fight off any existential dread. Embracing death can help us live a more present and fulfilling life and can help us find focus, meaning, and even enjoyment with the people we share our lives with. The knowledge of death makes life more precious, and more beautiful. Digital immortality would alter the way we embrace life, but would it all be bad?
The pain we all feel when someone we love dies will always occur whether you consider yourself Death Positive or are death avoidant. Current innovations in technology can allow us now to have conversations with our dead, albeit limited conversations at this time. Maybe it would help us to say good-bye when we didn’t have the chance? Expand this idea and imagine a world where we could talk to our great-great-great-great-great grandparents and they could talk back, sharing with us what life really was like for them all those years ago. If there was a level playing field for everyone to be able to choose to participate in digital immortality, the future could be very rich and engaging in ways we may not yet realize.
If true digital immortality was accomplished, and our consciousness was able to live on within a digital world it might be wondrous, or it might be disastrous. It could even become maddening or lonely if only a select few chose digital immortality, or worse only the privileged had access to the choice. The fact is, we don’t know if this is even achievable, and we are even further away from knowing what kind of impact it would have.
The future is now. The research is happening in real-time and is exciting and fascinating. Whether you’re a transhumanist who believes in mind cloning, or someone who wants to simply preserve their legacy for future generations, digital immortality may have a lot to offer. Either way technology is continuing to not only change the way we live, but the way we die.