Reaping the benefits of a digital afterlife
I am kind of obsessed with dying.
At any moment I’m convinced that I have at least three life-threatening ailments and for Christmas I’ve asked for a full-body MRI scan.
Because I’ve spent a higher than average amount of time thinking about departing from this mortal coil, I’ve increasingly had to think about the growing role technology is playing in how we die.
It’s looking more and more likely that tech could give me a chance to live on after I die but is it a chance for immortality – and for grieving loved ones to have some comfort? Or should it be left well alone?
While it’s probably always going to be a grey area, what’s getting clearer is that – to varying degrees – it’s a question we’re all going to have to ask ourselves, and soon.
As we rely on technology, and social media in particular, and put increasingly personal information online, our digital selves look set to outlive us all.
A girl I knew from school passed away a few years ago and her Facebook page has become a really nice way of friends and family to remember her.
The downside is that I get a bit of a jolt every time someone posts a picture of her and it appears on my news feed, and I can’t imagine how much worse that must be for her family.
While they get to share in the memories of all the people that knew her, they also have less control over when these reminders will appear.
If you want to take control of your digital destiny, Facebook lets you delete or memorialise your account by nominating a ‘legacy contact’, who can control it but won’t have access to private messages.
Tech can help with death in a more practical sense too, with apps to help you prepare your funeral or will, simplifying these typically lengthy and expensive processes.
This is all small-fry compared with what’s to come though.
In 2013 Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror episode Be Right Back told the story of a widow who downloaded all of her late husband’s social media and messages into a life-like robot, which then used AI to impersonate him. I won’t give any spoilers, but it definitely leaves you feeling like it’s a dangerous road to go down.
Four years later and a similar but less extreme real-life version is Eternime – a start-up that lets you become ‘virtually immortal’. It stores all your digital information in order to create a chatbot that will let people speak to ‘you’ after you die.
More than 37,000 people have already signed up for the service, which launches next year.
Luka Labs, based in San Francisco, has created a similar chatbot called Replika. Founder Eugenia Kuydah started the project as a digital memorial for Roman, a friend of hers who passed away.
Roman’s family also use the bot and have found it comforting, so I’m assuming it must bring some comfort, but BusinessCloud journalist Jenny Brookfield gave it a go and said she just found it saddening.
On a less personal note, there’s DeadSocial.org, which is the essentially the modern version of the film PS I Love you. It lets users schedule social media posts to be sent out after they die which seems unfair as again, your family and friends have no idea when these are going to pop up.
Aside from being a bit creepy, I’d be worried about someone hacking all of these and getting them to spew out nasty messages to vulnerable people. It’d be a rubbish legacy and pretty upsetting for those left behind. And what happens when the messages stop and the crutch is taken away?
I can also see people trying to use the tech to recreate relationships after a partner leaves them.
Being dumped may be a legitimate form of grief but it creates even more ethical issues when the real person is still walking around.
On balance, I don’t really like the idea of interacting with the digital ghost of someone I love – a literal ghost in the machine – and I’d probably also want my own digital presence to leave this earth when I do.
On the other hand grief makes you do crazy things, so if the worst thing that I do when I’m grieving is use a chatbot to console me for a while, then I reckon I can make peace with that.