Feb 02, 2017, 08:00AM

Digital Afterlife

What are the possibilities for virtual presences after death?

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In my spare time, I’ve taken to writing fiction. In one of my planned novels, I mention a technology that collects data from a user to create a digital facsimile. When I first wrote it, I wanted a believable technology to explain a specific plot point. What was interesting was that not long after I caught wind of this technology being devised in the present day.

Audiences saw a visual equivalent in Star Wars: Rogue One, which featured a digital reconstruction of Peter Cushing and a New Hope-era Carrie Fisher. However, most are unaware that the process of creating an artificial intelligence program based on a real person is no longer the domain of science fiction. This technology has been enabled by the incredible amount of information that’s generated on a regular basis. In the near future, people could create copies of themselves that could later go on to learn and adapt to new situations.

According to Quartz, the volume of data that Millennials accumulate in their digital lives is sufficient for creating a chatbot that can behave like a lost loved one. This bot can continue texting, or interacting with relatives through Skype. But this data is not the entirety of the duplicate's nature. With the help of neural networks, computer systems that function similarly to human brains, the chatbot can learn and adapt to new situations.

While this technology is still in its infancy, it has sparked ethical issues. After all, that data has to be collected from social networks that already carry a load of privacy concerns. Furthermore, what impact does this have on a grieving family member's ability to process death? Is it ethical for a digital replica of a person to continue to interact with a living relative? What if that copy begins making decisions on its own?

The prospect of talking to a digital copy sounds a lot like talking to a ghost. What kind of future will such a technology create? Exploring the possibilities may be very exciting, but also very frightening. The only thing that seems certain is the inevitability of the process. How will we prepare for this future?


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