It is perhaps not surprising that during a pandemic, we find ourselves thinking more than usual about death and what lies beyond. So the news that Microsoft has filed to patent the process of building chat bots from dead people’s social media histories, seems somewhat timely.
Microsoft’s patent covers chatbots built from anyone’s digital history, not just the dead. But it is there that your mind immediately goes. Especially if you have been reading Neal Stephenson’s latest novel Fall, as I have. Fall is about the creation of a virtual world into which human bodies can be scanned at the point of death. The newly created ‘souls’ retain some aspects of their personality, albeit not their full memories.
We can rebuild him
Microsoft’s proposal is to delve through the digital archives of an individual and recreate their personality in digital form. The system would apparently draw on “images, voice data, social media posts and electronic messages” to build a profile. It might even use a ‘voice font’ assembled from recordings to make it sound like them, or recreate their image in 2 or 3D. Of course, with current levels of technology, we can’t actually replicate human thought processes or capability. But call centre systems can already assemble original conversations from stores of data. A conversation with a chatbot such as Microsoft may seem fairly true to the original. It may even be able to say completely original things, if it can process news media through the lens of what it understands about a person’s views.
Do not resuscitate
For me the main problem with this is about consent. Do you want a digital puppet based on your personality existing in the world after you are gone? Could you stop someone creating one if you wanted to? After all, many of us have sufficient digital footprints to support the creation of basic deepfakes today. It’s not a massive leap to think someone could create a virtual clone of us today without our consent. The only reason I have a blue tick on Twitter is that someone – maliciously – created a digital identity pretending to be me, so some people are clearly motivated to do this. Imagine if that digital clone had been autonomous rather than human-controlled. Imagine if they could have spawned hundreds of virtual Toms, each time one was shut down.
These are extremes. But we are already having to face issues of consent around digital resurrection. From holographic performances by Tupac or Elvis, to Kanye’s holographic gift to Kim Kardashian: a speaking representation of her father with a message from beyond the grave. Who has the right to resurrect us?
The big conversations
These are questions to which we don’t have answers today. Like so many technologies, this possibility creates questions for society about ethics, etiquette and law. And as is so often the case, we feel ill-equipped to address the range of questions at the speed required. Facebook may have abandoned its mantra of ‘move fast and break things’, but our approach to dealing with new technologies remains to break things first, then work out how to fix them.
The prospect of a digital afterlife in one form or another is already moving from science fiction to reality. If you want to live forever, or want to ensure that your end is a true end, it may be time to update your will.