WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Digital Avatars will mean that physical human death is simply a doorway into a new digital reality where our descendants interact with our Avatars instead of the real, physical us.
Over the past couple of years, asides from the giant strides we’ve seen in the development of new revolutionary healthcare technologies to prolong life, from early stage Cancer vaccines, disease hunting nanobots, and the nascent ability to 3D print human bone, brain and heart tissue, cartilage, corneas, skin, teeth, and grow replacement body parts from stem cells, and of course, turn the human body into its very own disease fighting supercomputer, one of the things still eluding us is a “cure for death.” And despite the best efforts of some organisations and governments to classify ageing as a disease, which would let regulators approve treatments for it, and develop technologies that, literally, bring people back from the dead, by physically cloning them, and even trying to bring them back after death, it looks like in order to “cheat death” we’ll have to rely on more mundane yet still exotic, by today’s standards at least, technologies.
And this is where Hossein Rahnama, who knows a CEO of a major financial company who wants to live on after he’s dead, comes in who thinks he can help him do it using a combination of technologies I’ve discussed many times before, namely avatars, big data, hi def rendering, and neural networks. For starters.
Rahnama is creating a digital avatar for the CEO that they both hope could serve as a virtual “consultant” when the actual CEO is gone. Some future company executive deciding whether to accept an acquisition bid might pull out her cell phone, open a chat window, and pose the question to the late CEO. The digital avatar, created by an Artificial Intelligence (AI) platform that analyses personal data and correspondence, might detect that the CEO had a bad relationship with the acquiring company’s execs and that might change the deal.
“I’m not a fan of that company’s leadership,” the avatar might say, and the screen would go red to indicate disapproval.
If this sounds like not only a way to “life forever” in the form of a digital avatar it also potentially represents something much more significant too – the future of work – where CEO’s could, on the one hand be replaced by AI’s, something Jack Ma recently said he saw as a possibility in the future, and, or, create digital versions of themselves like Bridgewater Associates CEO is trying to do by turning the world’s largest hedge fund, with $160 Billion under management, into a Distributed Autonomous Organisation (DAO) that is run by a digital version of him and his brain. No joke… seriously. And this is just the beginning of what will inevitably become a new trend in time that could one day see companies run by autonomous, digital CEO’s – based on real or synthetic “characters” – or even see dead CEO’s still have a “virtual seat” on the board.
Creepy? Maybe. Amazing? Absolutely! Ha – just think of having an immortal boss that’s a douche bag, better quit right now. Rahnama believes we’ll come to embrace the digital afterlife and I think he’s right, whether we like it or not. An entrepreneur and researcher based at Ryerson University in Canada, and a visiting faculty member at MIT’s Media Lab, he’s building an application called Augmented Eternity that lets you create a digital persona that can interact with people on your behalf after you’re dead.
While most older people haven’t amassed enough digital detritus to build a working AI, Rahnama posits that in the next few decades, as we continue to create our digital footprints, millennials will have generated enough data to make it feasible. Even as we speak, the digital remains of the dead accumulate. Something like 1.7 million Facebook users pass away each year. Some online accounts of the dead are deleted, while others linger in perpetual silence in the digital dark.
“We are generating exabytes of data on a daily basis,” Rahnama says. “We now have a lot of data, we have a lot of processing power, we have a lot of storage capability.”
With enough data about how you communicate and interact with others, machine learning algorithms can approximate your unique personality – or at least part of it. And what would the digital “you” look like? Well, what do you want it to look like?
It might be a text based chatbot or an audio voice like Siri or a digitally edited video or a living digital avatar, like the ones from Soul Machines that I’ve written about before, or a 3D animated character in a Virtual Reality (VR) environment. It might even be embedded in a humanoid robot. And one thing is for certain – new technologies will give us a myriad of options. Pick one or why not pick them all?
But we’re not there quite yet. It’s hard enough to create software agents, such as Google’s Duplex and WaveNet technologies, that can carry on natural sounding conversations, let alone capture the personality of a specific person. And there’s no software yet that can interact, communicate, and make decisions the way you do.
For now at least Rahnama says the CEO’s avatar will be a “decision support tool,” but it won’t be capable of running the company, but that that could come in time.
“There is one thing that is missing in AI today, and that is context,” he says.
Most chatbots simply offer responses based on the content of a conversation, but our communication changes depending on who we’re talking to, where we are, and what time of day it is. The need to include this kind of context was the basis for Rahnama’s company, Flybits.
Flybits provides a platform that lets companies tailor their communications to customers on the basis of contextual cues. A bank, for example, might offer different messages through its mobile app depending on your purchase history, your calendar schedule, or whether you’re walking or taking a train.
The contextual part was something Rahnama found useful when he started Augmented Eternity. If you’re going to construct a digital self, it’s not enough to know that somebody said something. You have to know the context in which it was said – was the person joking? Annoyed? Reacting to today’s news? These same kinds of clues end up being crucial when piecing together a digital personality, which is why the Augmented Eternity platform takes data from multiple sources – Facebook, Twitter, messaging apps, and others – and analyses it for context, emotional content, and semantics.
A similar concept grabbed headlines a few years ago when Russian software developer Eugenia Kuyda created a chatbot representation of her best friend, Roman Mazurenko, who died in late 2015. Kuyda made the bot by plugging Mazurenko’s personal messages with friends and family into a neural network built with Google’s open source machine learning framework, TensorFlow. The bot was, by Kuyda’s own admission, not very precise or polished, but when it answered questions, it often sounded uncannily like her friend.
Kuyda says the main complication with trying to create digital versions of the dead is that people are complicated.
“We’re extremely different when we talk to different people,” she says. “We’re basically like twenty thousand personalities at once.” For example, Mazurenko had said things to her that he might have left out of a conversation with his parents. She could consult with his family and other friends to figure out which information was too sensitive to share. Could any company realistically do the same?
Rahnama obviously thinks so. He says Augmented Eternity will take a step toward accommodating various personalities by tailoring the conversation according to context and letting users control what data is accessible to whom. So someday his daughter might consult with his digital family persona, while a former student could ask questions of his academic persona. And he sees it as one way of leaving a legacy – a way to keep contributing to society instead of fading to black.
But a digital avatar might also come in handy even when you’re still around. AI could help transform your professional expertise from a scattered written record to a representation of your knowledge that people can interact with. A lawyer who charges hundreds of dollars an hour could let people consult a digital avatar instead, something I discussed at a recent Allen &Overy keynote in the UK, for a much lower price.
Celebrities, politicians, and other public figures could outsource some of their public interaction to digital versions of themselves. AI would allow us to consult experts with whom we’d never be able to meet in real life. The ability to represent and share expertise, Rahnama says, “can actually contribute to new business models on the internet.” Rather than speaking with a generic Siri or Alexa, you could ask an eminent scientist, a politician, or a co-worker. And why attend a business meeting when you could send your avatar?
Meanwhile elsewhere another startup, Eternime, based in Mountain View, California, is also offering to incorporate your personal information into “an intelligent avatar that looks like you” and that will “live forever and allow other people in the future to access your memories.”
Its founder, Marius Ursache, has been promoting the idea for years, and so far more than 40,000 people have signed up to Eternime’s waiting list, but the self-funded company has still launched only limited beta versions.
Ursache thinks the problem is less technical than behavioural, saying “People don’t invest much time in activities that will pay off in decades,” he says.
Whether or not it takes off as a business though Rahnama hopes Augmented Eternity will start conversations about privacy and data ownership.
“The reason I like this research project is that it addresses a lot of key ethical questions around data science and AI,” he says. “Like, who is going to own my information after I pass away?”
In a paper published in Nature Human Behavior earlier this year, ethicists Carl Öhman and Luciano Floridi from the Oxford Internet Institute argue that we need an ethical framework for the burgeoning digital afterlife industry.
Should we treat digital remains by the same code that museums use for human remains? Doing so would severely limit the ways in which companies can use or exploit our data. If digital remains are like “the informational corpse of the deceased,” they write, they “may not be used solely as a means to an end, such as profit, but regarded instead as an entity holding an inherent value.”
Just about every discussion of the digital afterlife, Öhman points out, mentions “Be Right Back,” an episode of the British show Black Mirror, in which a bereaved young widow interacts with a digital avatar of her late husband. Over the course of the episode, she progresses from sending a few hesitant texts to a chatbot to purchasing a lifelike robot in her husband’s image.
What’s often overlooked though in discussions about the show is the role of the company that created the avatar. In real life, Öhman says, we should be sceptical of such companies. The power of the digital dead to manipulate the living is enormous, after all, who better to sell us a product than someone we’ve loved and lost? Thus our digital representations might be more talkative, pushy, and flattering than we are – and if that’s what their makers think is best, who’s going to stop them?
In the Black Mirror episode, the avatar periodically elicits more of the dead husband’s data and up sells his widow on more expensive representations of him, until it becomes so lifelike that she can’t “kill” it.
The possibility of creating a digital immortal avatar of ourselves that can help guide and support our families, and others, for generations to come is an intriguing one, and it brings with it a host of ethical, moral and technical dilemmas. But that said, as the technology and data to create them becomes ever more ubiquitous and advanced you can be sure of one thing – at some point in the next decade or so more people will sign up to immortalise themselves in bits and bytes, and governments and regulators will be forced to examine the field more closely than they do today.