Hossein Rahnama knows a CEO of a major financial company who wants to live on after he’s dead, and Rahnama thinks he can help him do it.
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 platform that analyzes personal data and correspondence, might detect that the CEO had a bad relationship with the acquiring company’s execs. “I’m not a fan of that company’s leadership,” the avatar might say, and the screen would go red to indicate disapproval.
Creepy? Maybe, but Rahnama believes we’ll come to embrace the digital afterlife. An entrepreneur and researcher based at Ryerson University in Toronto, and a visiting faculty member at MIT’s Media Lab, he’s building an application called Augmented Eternity; it lets you create a digital persona that can interact with people on your behalf after you’re dead.
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.
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.”