November 26, 2019

Digital Immortality

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26.11.2019, by Imke van der Sanden


In Black Mirror’s ‘Be Right Back’, chatbots of our deceased loved ones made possible through the use of artificial intelligence by using someone’s digital footprint were already quickly introduced to us. Although to most of us this sounds like science fiction, technology is quickly catching up when it comes to virtually bringing someone back from the dead.

Recordable Teddy Bears

We have most likely all seen the touching videos of the teddy bears (or any other form of plush animals) that come with a beautiful, sweet or meaningful message of a deceased loved one. Build-A-Bear allows people to add a voice recording to their plush animals, in order for a memorable and magical surprise. With the simple press of a paw it helps us remember the voices of those we never want to forget. But what if you want to take things a step further than hearing one single message on repeat?


Example of a person chatting with the Roman chatbot.

The fact that chatbots, like the one shown in Black Mirror’s ‘Be Right Back’, who talk like our deceased loved ones are becoming something to take more seriously, proves Eugenia Kuyda. Kuyda would read the endless text messages sent between her and her best friend Roman Mazurenko, as she was grieving his loss. The text messages sparked an idea in Kuyda, who decided to ‘rebuild’ her best friend after he died with the use of artificial intelligence by feeding his old messages to a neural network built by developers at her startup Replika (previously named Luka). Kuyda often wondered if she was doing the right thing by bringing her best friend, Mazurenko, back like this. But Kuyda wanted nothing more than one more chance to speak with her best friend. Although not all of their friends and family members were enthusiastic about the chatbot that spoke like Mazurenko, many said that chatting with the chatbot had a therapeutic effect on them. Interestingly Kuyda found that the main purpose people used the chatbot for was not to talk to Mazurenko, but for him to listen. “All those messages were about love, or telling him something they never had time to tell him.”

Do You Want to Live Forever?

Tech entrepreneur Marius Ursache wants to make digital copies of the dead. His company Eternime, hopes to make people virtually immortal by creating a digital avatar of them after they die. But how does it work? Eternime is an app that collects your data (with your explicit permission) by harvesting heaps of smartphone data, as well as by asking you questions through a chatbot, with the goal to have collected enough data to create a chatbot or digital ‘avatar’ as Ursache calls it, of you after you die so that your loved ones are able to interact with it (or with you).

Digital Immortality Danger

Even though chatbots of the dead may bring comfort to friends and family, that does not mean they do not raise various ethical questions. Researcher Carl Öhman, of the Oxford Internet Institute, explored the possible problems that could arise with these kind of re-creation services. In his paper, he mentions the main issue he expects to arise are software updates, that might change the way that the bot functions after you die. Öhman also warns that algorithms can act unpredictably, and gives the example of Microsoft’s Twitter chatbot Tay – it turned into a racist, misogynistic, bigot within a matter of hours. So, how do we make sure this does not happen to our late best friend, or grandmother, or whoever these chatbots are supposed to represent? If we can at all?


Another tool that can aid you in leaving a proper digital legacy behind is DeadSocial, a platform that allows you to post on your social media profiles from beyond the grave. DeadSocial states that their goal is to provide the best tools and support for people who would want to bring our digital lives to a managed and controlled ending. It works as follows: you write your final goodbye message and any other messages you may want to post, for example a specific message for a loved one on their birthday, or for your best friend’s graduation, or for your spouse on your anniversary. Perhaps the most important part of DeadSocial is to assign a ‘social media will executor’ (you can assign up to six individuals), someone who you completely trust, that will activate your messages after your passing. 

So with new technology being developed, and with the need for social media will executors for programs such as DeadSocial, will there soon be job opportunities to become a ‘social media manager’ of the dead? Perhaps. Or perhaps this is a job we only entrust to our closest friends and family.

Either way, it seems like each day, we get a step closer to asking ourselves the question: Do we want to live (digitally) forever?

For more information about your digital legacy on different social media platforms, check out our article about The Digitival Graveyard.

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