What Are The Ethical Boundaries Of Digital Life Forever?
Today artificial intelligence (AI) driven digital technologies are giving us new pathways to always have your loved ones with you, 7×24. Sound far-fetched?
Not really, despite the eeriness from Black Mirror episodes, or Carrie Fisher digitally created to carry on as Princess Leia in Star Wars, and Microsoft securing a patent for software that could reincarnate people as a chat bot, opening the door to more uses of AI contemplating how to bring the dead back to life are rapidly accelerating.
Are we ready for death resurrections? Is this the right thing for us to be doing?
From my research, we don’t have all the answers to this complex question yet, but what we have are many innovators, academics, researchers shaping the answer to this question that will enable richer immersive digital learning experiences – and others that bringing grandma back to life – and persisting forever – may feel positively therapeutic to ease a deep grief, or feel like you are immersed in a Stephen King movie.
As humans, we have always found ways to remember our losses. I remember when my father passed away, I loved to look at old photos or re-watch old videos, I just wished I could see his face more and hear him talk. He had so much wisdom and the stories if he could share with our children, whom he never saw grow up, due to an early death from cancer, one more conversation would be joyous.
How many times have so many said, if I could only hear his or her voice one more time?, or if only I could feel his touch one more time? I have close friends who have lost a loved one and retain their favorite clothes. They enjoy holding their favorite sweater and smelling the deceased loved one’s scent which calms them. What if their full essence was retained, without the human physical form, and came in a digital immersive experience or in an android form that was near to impossible to know the difference?
Digital Technologies powered by AI are rapidly evolving and many new apps are testing the digital representations of the dead. What if you could type a message to your loved one and receive a response that was so endearing, or be able to have a meaningful conversation with Einstein to help you solve a complex quantum computing challenge, or with Van Gogh on how to make the impasto brush stroke to leave visible three-dimensional brush strokes on your canvas. Would these type of digital experiences be embraced or would new laws require the dead to remain buried in current digital forms vs new digital forms?
As digital technology innovators are working to recreate a person’s touch, appearance, voice, emotion, and memories, the notion of resurrecting people as digital entities is no longer hypothetical this is now very real.
In the Black Mirror episode, Martha is devastated when her fiancée, Ash, dies in a car accident. Martha subscribes to a service that uses his previous online communications to create a digital avatar that mimics his personality. First the experience is simple and it sends her text messages; then his voice is recreated and can talk to her on the phone. Then a real android has Ash’s personality implanted and he looks identical to him. Martha is however in an artificial reality loop locking her from experiencing the real world and its new wonders.
With the amount of innovation and activity in this rapidly emerging field, this is no longer a futuristic idea, this is fast becoming big business as technology innovators always infuse possibilities to expand how we think of what it means to be human and although death is inevitable, at least for now, what can live on is our loved one’s memories and collectively all knowledge memories can be tapped or synthetically re-created so the dead live on with us digitally.
Take Luka, a San Francisco-based company, is developing a chat based AI technology that is very similar to Black Mirror Martha’s story to mimic your texting style. The founder imagines this will evolve into a digital avatar that acts just like you and can survive creating a living testament to the person you are. Her inspiration was the death of a close friend Roman and her story is reminiscent of Martha in the Black Mirror episode.
The depth of knowledge humans have stored in their brains and in our memories, what if these memories and insights were never lost – whether this immersive interaction comes from a digital app, an avatar, or a chat bot – what is clear is that this interest by product developers, engineers, and research scientists is accelerating.
Bruce Duncan, managing director of Terasem Movement Foundation, a Bristol, Vermont-based nonprofit that promotes digital resurrections, says that being able to have a two-way conversation with a digital version of them, where you can be reminded of their mannerisms or behavioural patterns in an interactive way, could become a natural part of the grieving process.
Technology founder, Richard Boyd, CEO of Tanjo has already resurrected his father using AI. Richard has spent his entire career advancing machine learning technology and automation to build applications that keeps organizations ahead of the curve. In a recent interview with Richard, I was able to see his early software application at work, where he has amassed as much digital content of his father that he could, and created a virtual experience where questions that he may want to ask his father enables his artificial father to respond in written text that is reminiscent of Richard’s special memories. Richard comes from the gaming industry which is a perfect world to bring your lost ones to life with digital avatars that can interact with you forever. What I liked about Richard’s vision is he is thinking beyond the resurrection of his loved ones and researching and creating immersive experiences that can bring back the voices of all the greatest thinkers of all time.
Now this use case has incredible learning immersive reach?
Richard talked about Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, known simply as Michelangelo, an Italian sculptor, painter, architect and poet of the High Renaissance born in the Republic of Florence, who exerted an unparalleled influence on the development of Western art. What if your art teacher was Michelangelo in your immersive classroom? How much richer would this experience and learning retention deliver to student performance?
Would you take your children to a museum if they could interact with the voice of Dr. Stephen Hawking, the greatest theoretical physicist and discuss black holes in their science class?
Boyd’s vision is more embracing perhaps to humans that are not quite ready to embrace the potentially creepy side of having grandma always beside your bed to say good night. The nice aspect of technology is you would only allow the voices into your home that you truly missed – so less creepy perhaps?
Even MIT Media Lab is working on digital resurrection technology. So our leading technology research centers are pushing forward in areas that are increasingly immersive and striving to retain the essence of our loved ones and their memories. Many research scientists view these technologies as therapeutic grief tools, the question is of persistency and its potentially addictive implications?
Google also has a patent for a digital clone that embodies people’s mental attributes. New Zealand-based software company, UneeQ is marketing digital humans that re-create human interaction at infinite scale.
It is not inconceivable that you will put on your virtual reality glasses and headset at breakfast and have your deceased husband at your breakfast table or even take a walk with you in a nearby park. AI experts are working to connect these ideas with ensuring you can continue to hear their voices and have a conversation in a realistic way.
It goes without saying that the digital version of a person is no match for the living, breathing human being – however scientists are working to get you the closest match possible.
Scientists are experimenting with algorithms that can take a person’s emails and text messages and use them to generate text messages that are at least evocative of a specific person. The messages can use emojis like the dead person once did. And with data pulled from the internet, the texts can even include back-and-forth about topical things like weather and current events. Just think of how many text messages you may have with your family over many years – how many people delete all these text messages. I know I don’t and often scroll on my Fam Jam channel to have a laugh or two on common phrases known to our family.
How can I bring a loved one back to life if I don’t have a lot of historical data?
You might think we need so much historical data to train an AI algorithm to take on the persona of a loved one and if you don’t have a lot of data how could an experience like this possibly work. First, synthetic data can be used as it is created algorithmically, and it is used as a stand-in for test datasets of production or operational data, to validate mathematical models and, increasingly, to train machine learning models. In other words, digital resurrection production systems could take all the stories of your loved one and the stories pull out the persona, the voice extraction and emotion intelligence software can take on the voice tonality and in time even the emotional moods of your loved one.
Will we care in the future if the voice of a father, or a grandparent is a deep fake but has the social norms and values that were revered by your family and having that strong voice beside you for your life, will people really care – as long as the voice is still there?
Amber Davisson, associate professor of communication and philosophy at Keene State College, and co-editor of Controversies in Digital Ethics, and says the most concerning aspect of digital resurrections would be moments where the person is made to do things they wouldn’t have done in real life. There will be pain in humans when these artificial experiences are not connected to a human’s memory recall.
Elizabeth Tolliver, assistant professor of counselling at the University of Nebraska Omaha, who studies grief is concerned that people would want more and more of the technology to feel closer to the person that they’ve lost rather than living the life they’re currently alive in.
I am very curious as to the possibility of a future where my loved ones are still here with me, through voice and video.
Would I buy a product like this, if an AI program could say in their voice some of their favorite quirks and phrases. My husband when I go out for my morning walk, I always say, “see you later alligator and he responds “in a while crocodile.” This is just one of our many endearing husband and wife phases. If Siri or Alexa could carry his voice and interact with me like this, I likely would gravitate to this experience as I already am socially connected to my hey Google’s morning cricket sounds when I say goodnight.
In the future, we will probably be able to design AI that responds in a human-like way to all new situations, but we don’t know how long this will take. Many think only fifty years others see a future where this is only twenty-five years away to get to general AI, mainly because language is very complex and there are so many variations to express the same meaning.
Digital resurrection technology is unlikely to stop with chatbots, it will merge with voice, emotional intelligence, robotics, avatars, and life will take on many new forms as innovation is like a ripple in a stream and new pebbles are skipping along the surface.
Some see this as beautiful, while others see this is fearful, or intrusive.
Is AI creating a perfect world or a perfect storm? I discuss this at length in my new book, the AI Dilemma where AI use cases can either be used for good or bad.
Digital resurrection may help the grieving process but it also has ethical risks of holding humans back from moving on in their lives to experience new possibilities being locked in the past. Careful ethical boundaries will be needed in digital resurrection merged with robotics and deep fake voices.
These ethical questions need deeper discussions bringing diverse stakeholders from government, educators, regulators, corporate leaders (board directors, C-Suite), and the general public to set an ethical pathway that protects our children’s future but also examines the boundaries of what it means to be human? Or should there be any boundaries as robotics continue to merge with humans – evolving to a higher species order? What would Elvis Presley or John Lennon say if their Avatar voice lived on forever without their explicit permission? Will AI write new songs never written by media singer personalities no longer with us? Who looks after the rights of the dead on digital resurrection?
There is a great deal to discuss and set policy, and regulation against on the impact of digital resurrection technologies, much like we had to advance our thinking of facial technologies and surveillance capitalism risks.
What is clear to me as a CEO of SalesChoice, a high tech AI software company passionate about ethical AI practices is that we have a responsibility as leaders to ensure we protect our employee’s human rights as well as our own.
Perhaps the most important question to close out on is ensuring our death wishes are documented clearly and ensuring liability implications if others extend our life beyond the real world without our explicit permission.