Back in 2016, James Vlahos spent many months building the ambitious piece of software he ended up calling Dadbot. It was a heartfelt attempt to preserve the memories of his then dying father by assimilating them into a chatbot that he and his family could converse with in their grief, and in the years to come. A journalist by trade, James wrote the full story of this journey in WIRED, and if you don’t shed a tear while reading it you are *officially* dead inside.
James now helps others memorialize themselves and loved ones in a similar fashion with his business Hereafter, which is part of a wider tech-driven trend for conserving legacy (see Vita and Storyworth).
However, outside of these clear and obvious reasons for recording and encoding human lives, the WSJ reported last week that there is a parallel movement to use AI and digital technologies to somehow prolong the lives of the subjects in question: “…not only as static replicas for the benefit of their loved ones but as evolving digital entities that may steer companies or influence world events.“
No, I’m not making this up.
Now, this blog has examined the strange and icky intersection of technology and death before, but largely from the perspective of respecting the dead — i.e. examining the problem of putting words into the mouths of deceased historical figures, reanimating them with deepfakes or as virtual reality puppets. But this is different. This is about the conscious effort to extend human reach beyond mortal extinction. And it begins with digital replication which, at first glance, seems innocent enough.
Quoting David Burden, the chief executive of Daden Ltd., a U.K.-based chatbot company, the WSJ writes:
Living people might use digital replicas of themselves that email and chat with colleagues to get more work done, or to take over while they are on vacation, Mr. Burden says. It is easy to foresee that advancing further. An Elon Musk -like executive might want to use a digital persona to manage a business after his death, he says.
“People who have created organizations and businesses don’t really want to let go of the reins,” he says. “Why not just hand it over to some sort of construct that will continue to grow the business in line with their particular thought?”
Why not, indeed? I’m sure Tim Cook could use a Steve Jobs-bot on occasions…
Regardless of moral question-marks surrounding such an idea, there are groups trying to make this happen in earnest. Like the Terasem Movement Foundation, started by SiriusXM founder and digital immortality evangelist Martine Rothblatt. The organization’s website states:
The common purpose of all of the Terasem Movement Foundation’s (TMF) projects is to investigate the Terasem Hypotheses which state that given:
(1) A conscious analog of a person may be created by combining sufficiently detailed data about the person (a “mindfile”) using future consciousness software (“mindware”), and
(2) that such a conscious analog can be downloaded into a biological or nanotechnological body to provide life experiences comparable to those of a typically birthed human.
We call this event Transferred Consciousness (TC). If even the first part of the two Terasem Hypotheses is shown to be true, the conscious analogs will be independent persons with rights and obligations dependent upon their capabilities.
The Terasem Movement Foundation has been busy over a number of years creating a digital replica of Rothblatt’s wife Bina — named Bina48 — for the purposes of immortality. Here’s an early video of Bina48 in training with the real Bina:
The WSJ was able to catch-up with the Terasum Movement Foundation more recently (see here at 11.43 onwards) and six years after the above video was made Bina48’s algorithms could reportedly generate original statements and responses based on her “mind file.”
Though the technology isn’t there yet, there is clearly an as-yet-ill-defined movement to use the vast and complex swathes of data we generate to digitally replicate and extend our presence — even to the point of extrapolating what we would’ve said, thought or done in particular scenarios. As the WSJ reported, even big gun Microsoft has filed a patent for this kind of technology (which they obviously say they never plan to use, etc etc).
Evidently there are some big philosophical questions here about whether our data footprint — however complex — would ever be enough to constitute our characters or consciousness. But even if it were, and we gave our permission to be recreated as autonomous agents after our death, there should be further concerns about ethical permissibility that extend to the living individuals “we” may interact with.
How will the living come to understand a world populated by digital replicas and autonomous “legacy bots”? If the WSJ is correct in its suggestion that they may facilitate power and influence from beyond the grave, how would this work and with what limitations?
Though this may seem pie-in-the-sky at this point (and it is), more of us are dying leaving rich digital lives behind us and it’s a very natural inclination to have this form the basis of a lively memory for our friends and relatives. It almost seems a shame not to. Regardless of any skepticism we hold about wacky groups like the Terasum Movement Foundation, if we were honest, lots of us would relish the idea of a stake in the future and Martine Rothblatt for one believes that the market is potentially huge.
However this evolves, as we look ahead it makes sense for those of us with full online lives to think about how we may or may not like our data to be used after our passing. At the same time, we should continue to keep a check on “AI ghosts” and the ambitions of those who would have them play a role more significant than that of a fond memory.