Digital Immortality: An Afterlife in Digital Clouds
Thanks to the advances in AI, the concept of digital afterlife, considered science fiction a couple of years ago, is becoming a real possibility
The quest for immortality has been a fixture of human culture and imagination for millennia. Many religions promise a form of eternal life or an afterlife: Christianity speaks of Heaven, Islam of Paradise, and Hinduism and Buddhism discuss cycles of rebirth and eventual liberation (moksha or nirvana).
As we have progressed in science and technology, new ideas for achieving immortality have emerged. Numerous experiments suggest it may be possible to extend lifespan, raising the prospect of humans enjoying healthy lives at the age of 120-150 years or more. If, however, one cannot make it to the point where longevity escape velocity takes off, there is the option to have one's body (or just the brain) cryogenically preserved, in the hope that future technology can bring it back to life.
In recent years, advancements in artificial intelligence have introduced a new option. What if we could take all information about someone—their messages, emails, videos, and voice recordings—and train an AI on it to create a digital replica?
This article will explore how AI can be used to "resurrect" people and what possible impact this technology can have.
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But first, let us define the term “digital immortality”. In their 2017 paper, The Ethics and Impact of Digital Immortality, Maggi Savin-Baden, David Burden and Helen Taylor define “digital immortality” as “the continuation of an active or passive digital presence after death”. The term itself, however, has been around before that.
One of the first, if not the very first, papers describing “digital immortality” comes from 2000. In a paper titled Digital Immortality, Gordon Bell and Jim Gray speculated that in the future, it will be possible to create a "two-way immortality" where an individual's experiences and learning continue to evolve in a digital format after their death. Digital immortality involves converting aspects of a person into information and storing it on a durable medium. The authors anticipate that it will be possible to create avatars or digital versions of individuals that can interact with others, potentially learning and staying current with advancements, thus leading to a form of two-way immortality. This could mean that a digital representation of a person might continue to "live and communicate" indefinitely.
One-way and two-way immortality
One of the key concepts in exploring digital immortality is the concept of one-way and two-way immortality.
"One-way immortality" refers to a form of digital immortality where a person's data, such as thoughts, memories, and personality, are preserved in a digital form, but there is no ongoing interaction with the external world. In this model, the digital persona is not designed to learn, adapt, or evolve in response to new interactions after the initial creation. It is a static preservation, much like a time capsule of a person's digital footprint, that exists without the capacity for growth or change. An example of this could be a person’s Instagram profile or any other social media profile. It has information about that person, what they liked, what they created or their opinions on various topics, but it will not change. It is static, frozen in time.
"Two-way immortality," in contrast, implies a dynamic form of digital immortality where the digital persona can interact with the living, learn from new experiences, and perhaps even develop over time. This model suggests a more sophisticated form of digital existence where the persona can engage in interactive relationships with the environment and people around it, akin to a living being. This type of immortality is more complex and raises further questions about consciousness, identity, and the nature of existence, as the digital persona is not just a record but an active participant that may evolve independently of its original human template. This is where chatbot replicas of humans come into the picture.
Digital Afterlife Industry
A study investigating the Digital Afterlife Industry (which the study defines as “commercial enterprises that monetize death online”) found 57 companies operating in this space in 2017. These companies offer various services, ranging from managing the social media accounts of the deceased to managing digital assets and personal information, to creating online spaces for grieving and memorials. Among these companies, there were also startups offering digital replicas of the deceased.
We leave an extensive trail of data: social media posts, photos, voice, and text messages. Our online personas may not be exact replicas of our true selves, but, given enough data, they can closely approximate us. This data can be fed into AI systems to mimic a specific person's speech patterns and reactions.
Microsoft has a patent for a chatbot that can recreate a specific person, past or present. It could be anyone—a friend, a relative, a celebrity, a fictional character, or a historical figure. The patent describes a chatbot that would ingest “social data” about the target person and based on that, the AI would attempt to recreate the person. As of now, Microsoft has no plans to turn this patent into a product.
Examples of people brought “back to life” as an AI chatbot
But what Microsoft won’t do, other people will. We do not need to wonder what would happen when a dead person is brought back to life as a chatbot or a simulation. It has already been done at least four times.
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