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I have been thinking about death lately. Not a lot — a little. Possibly because I recently had a month-long bout of Covid-19. And, I read a recent story about the passing of the actor Ed Asner, famous for his role as Lou Grant in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” More specifically, the story of his memorial service where mourners were invited to “talk” with Asner through an interactive display that featured video and audio that he recorded before he died. The experience was created by StoryFile, a company with the 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 yet asynchronous conversation.

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

This is almost like cheating death. 

Even though the deceased is materially gone, their legacy appears 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 very much alive William Shatner. Through this interactive experience, I asked Shatner if he had any regrets. He then “spoke” at length about personal responsibility, eventually coming back to the question (in Shatner-like style). The answer, by the way, is no. 

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 aspires to reinvent remembrance, offering its clients “digital immortality.” This technology evolved from an earlier chatbot developed by a son hoping to capture his dying father’s memories.

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It is easy to see the allure of this possibility. My father passed away ten years ago, shortly before this technology was available. While he did write a short book containing some of his memories, I wish I had hours of video and audio of him talking about his life that I could query and both see and hear the responses in his own voice. Then, in some sense, he would seem to still be alive. 

This desire to bring our deceased loved ones “back to life” is understandable as a motivation and helps to 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 capabilities:  “Some years from now, your great-grandchildren will be able to talk with you even if they didn’t have the chance to know you in person.”

How can you talk to dead people?

In “Be Right Back,” an episode from the Netflix show “Black Mirror,” a woman loses her boyfriend in a car accident and develops an attachment to an AI-powered synthetic 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 recreated 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 vivid and moving, especially since the bot “said” exactly the sort of thing the real Jessica would have said (in his estimation). Moreover, interacting with the bot enabled him to achieve a kind of catharsis and closure after years of grief. This is more remarkable since he had tried therapy and dating without significant results; he still could not move on. In 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 likely will not be the last. For example, Microsoft announced in 2021 that it had secured a patent for software that could reincarnate people as a chatbot, opening the door to even wider use of AI to bring the dead back to life.

In an AI-driven world, when is someone truly dead?

“We’ve got to verify it legally

To see if she is morally, ethically

Spiritually, physically

Positively, absolutely

Undeniably and reliably dead!” 

–Munchkinland scene — “Wizard of Oz”

In the novel “Fall; or, Dodge in Hell,” author Neal Stephenson imagines 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 through precise scanning of the one hundred billion neurons and seven hundred trillion synaptic connections humans have, upload this connectome to the cloud and somehow turn it on in a digital realm. Once Dodge’s digital consciousness is up-and-running, thousands of other souls who have died in Meatworld join the evolving AI-created landscape that becomes Bitworld. Collectively, they develop a digital world in which these souls have what appears as consciousness and a form of tech-fueled immortality, a digital reincarnation.

Just as the technology did not exist ten years ago to create bots that virtually maintain the memories and — to a degree — the presence of the deceased, today the technology does not exist to create a human connectome or Bitworld. According to Louis Rosenberg of Unanimous A.I.: “This is a wildly challenging task but is theoretically feasible.”

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

AI could provide digital immortality

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

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

This is one of many questions, but ultimately may be the most relevant — and one that likely cannot be answered until the technology exists. 

When might 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 is a finite amount, albeit a large amount. “And if you had a large enough computer, and a quick enough way to scan it, you ought to 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 sooner than we think.

Although in the end, I would just like to talk with my dad again. 

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

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