Is Digital Resurrection Possible?

15/02/2024

With the launch of his new report AI and the Afterlife, Nathan Mladin gives an overview of what you can find inside.

It’s a pivotal year for the world. More than 40 countries are holding elections which will come with their own convulsions, shifts and surprises. One of the biggest worries this year is around deepfakes that could fuel mass disinformation campaigns. In a pre–ChatGPT and social media world, these could still be produced for those with hefty budgets and hard–to–get equipment. But it is the ease with which they can be created and spread today in the wake of the generative AI boom that is causing concern. However we manage to navigate this election year, the reality is that synthetic content, including synthetic or digital persons, is not going away. If anything, it will become ubiquitous in years to come as the AI revolution continues to unfold. The preview is arguably already here.

Enter ‘grief tech’ – AI–powered chatbots and interactive avatars that simulate deceased loved ones. Trained on data such as letters, videos, voice notes, these digital entities are meant to aid the bereaved in their journey through grief. The juxtaposition with deepfakes and this year’s elections may seem forced. But the common thread lies in the ability to mould reality with advanced technology and blur the lines between what is genuine and manufactured.

Following on from Theos’ previous work, which unravelled the changing practices around death and emotional responses to it, our latest report, AI and the Afterlife: from Digital Mourning to Mind Uploading, delves into the intersection of technology with death and grief – an area known as digital or virtual immortality. Part one looks at digital legacy and memorialisation, ‘griefbots’ and digital personas. The argument we put forward is this: with appropriate safeguards, digital technology may help us remember loved ones and journey through grief. We might see these technologies as modern means of dealing with the basic human experience of loss and grief, akin to older traditions, like carrying a lock of hair or confecting a teddy bear from fabrics and clothes that belonged to our departed loved ones.

Yet the real danger lies with hyper–realistic and interactive simulations – deepfakes of the deceased, effectively. Tapping into our profound yearning for the real presence of our loved ones, they risk causing emotional harm, deceiving vulnerable users and trapping them in pseudo–relationships that cannot but disappoint. Because a simulation, however convincing, will always be a fraction of the embodied reality of another human being.

In an insightful Vox article on grief tech and ‘the race to optimize grief’, Mihika Agarwal refers to these technologies as ‘ghostbots’. It’s both a humorous and fitting description. Indeed, popular mythologies and folk stories describe ghosts as stuck in a liminal space between the world as we know it and an invisible world. And when they show up, they do not soothe the pain of loss but unsettle; they haunt rather than heal. In this way, they are a cautionary tale against conjuring disembodied spirits through technological wizardry.

Speaking of wizardry, part two of our latest report explores the notion of ‘mind uploading’. This is held up as an example and critique of transhumanism, an ideology and movement which seeks human enhancement with the help of technology. If simulations of persons based on extrinsic data are the appetiser, so to speak, ‘mind uploading’ is supposed to be the main event – virtual persons based on intrinsic brain data. But before we dismiss this as pure fancy, it’s essential to recognise its link to the present. ‘Mind uploading’ is the (perhaps) crude, fictional distillation of what highly influential transhumanist technologists are actively pursuing today: greater integration with computer systems and eventually merging with machines.

After sketching its intellectual history, the report goes on to challenge the assumptions underpinning this speculative pursuit. Weaving philosophical and scientific arguments, it shows why mind uploading misunderstands the nature of the mind, the complex make–up of identity, and the value of the physical body. It ends by probing the possibility of technological ‘resurrections’ and drawing a comparison between Christian and transhumanist beliefs regarding the person, death, and the afterlife.

There is a cynical – some would say merely clear–eyed – way to view all of this: as capitalism’s latest sinister gimmick, or the fantasies of out–of–touch billionaires. Yet in AI and the Afterlife we adopt a more intellectually curious perspective on the spectrum (spectre?) of virtual immortality, and view it as an arena where fundamental beliefs about what it means to be human, the meaning of death, and the afterlife are reflected and refracted through a technological prism in fascinating ways.

Digital immortality, including mind uploading, represents post–secular culture’s continued quest for the things that, traditionally, were under the purview of religion: resurrection, everlasting life, and the faith that refuses to accept that death is the end of our loved ones or the irrevocable loss of our most cherished relationships.

Read the full report here.

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