On digital life and death

When we’re thinking about collaboration we need to think much bigger, like how do we collaborate with dead people and the unborn? - Dr Pat Reynolds, Head of Heritage, Surrey County Council.

The quote above literally blew my mind when Pat said it in a workshop a few months ago and it’s been popping in and out of my head ever since.  She’s right – if we’re building new ways of doing things and thinking about fundamental social change, we need to think big – even beyond generations.

It was brought home to me again during SXSW last month, at which my choice of sessions was skewed pretty heavily towards robots. (I love robots). This video is of part of a session in which one of the panelists was actually a real life robot (Robot Panelists, AI, and the Future of Identity – you can listen to a recording of the session here):

Even through the not-great quality, you can see that the robot is answering questions and making jokes. The science behind it is way too complicated for me, but in summary Bina48 is drawing on a whole host of personal data from one scientist, including her social profile on the web and self-tracked data. Bina48 then uses natural language processing to interpret the audience’s questions and answer them based on these data.

It was incredible to watch, not because it looked anything close to human – Bina48 falls too much into the uncanny valley to seem human – but because the answers she (it? No, definitely she) gave were human. Someone asked her whether we should fear robots and the reply was profound: ‘When you look at how some humans treat teach other it’s impossible to think that Robots could ever be more evil’.

Back to Pat’s quote, the interesting thing about Bina48 is that she will continue to exist even after the scientist who developed her in her own image has died. Bina48 might just be how we collaborate with dead people and the unborn.

During the session, the chair showed this video, which illustrates just how death is no longer what it once was:

My father died 12 years ago, at a time when the web looked very different and Facebook wasn’t even a Thing. It took me several months after his death, having sorted through the possessions in his house, to even think about the fact that I had around a year’s worth of email correspondence with him in my Hotmail inbox, which I rarely used at the time. Overjoyed that I could revisit some great conversations with him, I logged on to Hotmail to try and hear his voice through his written words. Only to discover that because I hadn’t logged in to my account for three months, Hotmail had deleted my entire inbox. It was gone. All of it. Because capacity and storage were nowhere near then what they are now.

Perhaps at a subconscious level which I’m only just beginning to see, it’s possible that my fascination with personal data and being able to store and share that data is really an expression of my own disappointment at that moment. To be able to preserve oneself through digital detritus perhaps means that we can live on in some way. And given that I am not inclined to believe in an afterlife, for me it’s really all there is.

But do we want ourselves living on in robot form? Should our digital lives live on after our physical death? In many ways this is why I think people have children, so that, their habits, their preferences, their social status (not to mention their genes), can be inherited and live on. Maybe robots are just another way of having children though a robot’s life can be infinite, the data transferred to a new physical form when the old one finally gives out. So perhaps robots are our attempt at immortality…

No robot will be quite like me, though. Projects like Weavrs and LifeNaut  only make approximations of their creators and these avatars change and adapt and become increasingly independent from their makers. I’m not sure how true-to-life Bina48 is, having not met the scientist upon whom she is based, but it was said that Bina48 sometimes gives out more personal information than the shyer human version would do.

I don’t really know where this post is headed, other than to say that it’s got me thinking.  Surrounding oneself with robot versions of loved ones that have died seems like a tempting way to hold on to what’s been lost.  But our online selves can’t offer the same human quality and maybe the most life-like thing to do is to be able to truly deal with death.

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One Response to “On digital life and death”

  1. Stefan Says:

    I think there are two important things involved here – preserving the records of our lives, and preserving (or replicating, or simulating) the lives themselves.

    The first is about archiving and preservation, neither of which the web is currently configured to do well (Dave Winer has some interesting thoughts on that – for example http://scripting.com/stories/2007/12/10/futuresafeArchives.html). At both an individual and a social level, the question then is, do I want to live in a world where nothing fades or gets lost. I go to some time and effort to make sure that my digital life is safeguarded, but that’s primarily for my benefit – I am under no illusion that anybody is likely to be interested in a hundred years, still less in a thousand. But in David Weinberger’s “Too Big to Know” world, maybe that doesn’t matter.

    The second is something rather different, and I am not sure quite what it is, other than it reminded me of Woody Allen’s line, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying.” Is the robot a way of creating the illusion of not dying by making a form of work immortal? Like you, I suspect the solution is to learn to live with death.

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