Death, Resurrection and Digital Immortality in an AI World

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I’ve been thinking about death lately. Not much – a little. Possibly because I recently had Covid-19 for a month. And I read a recent story about the passing of the actor Ed Asner, famous for his role as Lou Grant on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” More specifically, the story of his memorial service where mourners were invited to “talk” to Asner through an interactive screen with video and audio he recorded before he died. The experience was created by StoryFile, a company with a mission to make AI more human. According to the company, their proprietary technology and AI can match pre-recorded answers with future questions, allowing for a real-time but asynchronous conversation.

In other words, it feels like a Zoom conversation with a live person.

This is almost like cheating death.

Even though the deceased has materially disappeared, their legacy seems to live on, allowing loved ones, friends, and other interested parties to “interact” with them. The company has also developed these experiences for others, including the still alive William Shatner. Through this interactive experience, I asked Shatner if he was sorry. He then “talked” at length about personal responsibility and finally returned to the question (in Shatner-esque style). The answer is no, by the way.

William Shatner introduces StoryFile. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HVPmGbynBrw

There are other companies developing similar technology, such as HereAfter AI. Using conversational AI, the company aims to reinvent memory and offer its customers “digital immortality.” This technology grew out of an earlier chatbot developed by a son in hopes of capturing the memories of his dying father.

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It’s easy to see the appeal of this opportunity. My father died ten years ago, shortly before this technology was available. Although he has written a short book of some of his memories, I wish I had hours of video and audio where he talked about his life, asked about it, and could both see and hear the responses in his own voice. Then in a sense he still seems to be alive.

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This desire to “bring back to life” our deceased loved ones is understandable as motivation and helps explain these companies and their potential. Another company is ETER9, a social network set up by Portuguese developer Henrique Jorge. He shared the multi-generational appeal of these abilities: “In a few years, your great-grandchildren will be able to talk to you, even if they haven’t had a chance to get to know you personally.”

How can you talk to dead people?

In “Be Right Back”, an episode of the Netflix show “Black Mirror”, a woman loses her boyfriend in a car accident and develops an attachment to a man-made recreation. This spoke to the human need for love and connection.

In much the same way, a young man named Joshua, who lost his girlfriend Jessica to an autoimmune disease, re-created her presence through a text-based bot developed by Project December using OpenAI’s GPT-3 large language transformer. He provided snippets of information about Jessica’s interests and their conversations, as well as some of her social media posts.

The experience for Joshua was vibrant and moving, especially since the bot “said” exactly the sort of thing the real Jessica would have said (in his estimation). In addition, the interaction with the bot allowed him to achieve a kind of catharsis and closure after years of grief. This is more remarkable because he had tried therapy and dating with no significant results; he still couldn’t go on. Discussing these bot capabilities, Project December developer Jason Rohrer said, “It may not be the first intelligent machine. But it kind of feels like it’s the first machine with a soul.”

It probably won’t be the last. For example, in 2021 Microsoft announced that it had been granted a patent for software that could reincarnate people as a chatbot, opening the door to an even wider use of AI to bring the dead back to life.

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When is someone really dead in an AI powered world?

“We need to verify it legally”

To see if she is moral, ethical

Mentally, physically

Positive, absolutely

Unmistakably and reliably dead!”

-Munchkinland Scene – “Wizard of Oz”

In the novel “Autumn; or, Dodge in Hell,” author Neal Stephenson envisions a digital afterlife known as “Bitworld,” contrasting the here and now of “Meatworld.” In the novel, the tech industry eventually develops the ability to map Dodge’s brain by accurately scanning the hundred billion neurons and seven hundred trillion synaptic connections humans have, uploading this connectome to the cloud and somehow turning it on into a digital realm Once Dodge’s digital consciousness is up and running, thousands of other souls who have died in Meatworld will join the evolving AI-created landscape that becomes Bitworld, collectively developing a digital world in which these souls have consciousness and a form of technology-driven immortality, a digital reincarnation.

Just as the technology did not exist ten years ago to create bots that virtually preserve the memories and – to some extent – the presence of the deceased, today the technology does not exist to create a human connectome or Bitworld. According to Louis Rosenberg of Unanimous AI, “This is a hugely challenging task, but theoretically feasible.”

And people are now working on these technologies through continued advances in AI, neurobiology, supercomputing and quantum computing.

AI can provide digital immortality

Neuralink, a company founded by Elon Musk focused on brain-machine interfaces, is working on aspects of mind uploading. A number of wealthy people, including tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, have reportedly arranged for their bodies to be preserved after death until the required technology is in place. Alcor is one such organization that offers this preservation service. As futurist and former Alcor CEO Max Moore said, “Our view is that when we call someone dead, it’s kind of a random line. In fact, they need rescue.”

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The concept of mind uploading is also explored in the Amazon series “Upload,” in which a man’s memories and personality are uploaded to a similar avatar. This avatar is in what passes for an eternal digital afterlife in a place known as ‘Lakeview’. In response, an Engadget article asked, “Even if a technology could take all the matter in your brain and upload it to the cloud, are you still the resulting consciousness?”

This is one of many questions, but ultimately arguably the most relevant — and one that probably can’t be answered until the technology exists.

When could that be? In the same Engadget article, “Upload” showrunner Greg Daniels implies that the ability to upload consciousness is all about information in the brain, noting that it’s a finite amount, albeit a large amount. “And if you had a computer big enough and fast enough to scan it, you should be able to measure everything, all the information that’s in someone’s brain.”

The ethical questions this raises could rival the connectome in number and will become critical much faster than we think.

Although eventually I would just like to talk to my father again.

Gary Grossman is the senior VP of technology practice at Edelman and global leader of the Edelman AI Center of Excellence.

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