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A spooky digital afterlife is no longer science fiction, so how do we navigate the risks?

A spooky digital afterlife is no longer science fiction, so how do we navigate the risks?

 


Imagine a future where your phone buzzes with a message that your deceased father's digital immortal bot is ready to go. The promise of being able to chat with virtual versions of your loved ones, perhaps through a virtual reality (VR) headset, is like stepping into a science fiction movie: thrilling and a little creepy at the same time.

As you interact with this digital dad, you'll feel like you're on a rollercoaster of emotions as secrets and stories you never knew before are revealed and your memories of the real person are changed.

This isn't a fictional scenario from the distant future. The digital afterlife industry is rapidly evolving, with several companies promising to create virtual re-creations of the deceased based on their digital footprints.

From artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots and virtual avatars to holograms, the technology offers a strange mix of comfort and confusion that may draw us into deeply personal experiences that blur the lines between past and present, memory and reality.

As the digital afterlife industry grows, significant ethical and emotional challenges arise, including concerns about consent, privacy, and the psychological impact on the living.

What is the Digital Afterlife Industry?

VR and AI technologies have made it possible to create virtual recreations of loved ones, with companies in this niche industry using data from social media posts, emails, text messages, and voice recordings to create digital personas that can interact with the live person.

Though still niche, the number of players in the digital afterlife industry is growing.

HereAfter allows users to record stories and messages during their lifetime that can be accessed by loved ones after death, while MyWishes offers the ability to maintain a presence in the lives of living people by sending pre-scheduled messages after death.

Hanson Robotics has developed a robot bust that uses the memories and personality traits of the deceased to interact with people, while Project December allows users to access so-called deep AI to hold text-based conversations with deceased people.

Generative AI also plays a key role in the digital afterlife industry. These technologies allow for the creation of highly realistic and interactive digital personas. However, the high level of realism can blur the line between reality and simulation. This can improve the user experience, but it can also cause emotional and psychological stress.

HereAfter is one of many apps in the niche digital afterlife industry. HereAfter is vulnerable to abuse

Digital afterlife technology has the potential to aid the grieving process by providing continuity and connection with the deceased. Hearing the voice or seeing a portrait of a loved one can be comforting and help people cope with the loss.

For some of us, this digital immortality may become a therapeutic tool, allowing us to preserve positive memories and feel closer to our loved ones after they have passed away.

But for others, the emotional impact could be so negative that it exacerbates rather than alleviates grief. AI-based recreations of loved ones could cause psychological harm if bereaved families engage in unwanted interactions; essentially, they would be under a digital curse.

Other major issues and ethical concerns surrounding this technology include consent, autonomy and privacy.

For example, a deceased person may not have consented to their data being used in a digital afterlife.

There is also a risk of misuse and data manipulation: companies could use digital immortals to promote goods and services for commercial gain; digital personas could be altered to convey messages or behaviors that the deceased person never espoused.

Regulation is needed

The legal framework needs to be updated to address concerns about this rapidly growing industry. Issues such as digital estate planning, who inherits the digital persona of a deceased person, and ownership of digital memory need to be addressed.

The European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) recognises a right to post-mortem privacy, but enforcement faces challenges.

Social media platforms control access to the data of deceased users, often against the wishes of their heirs, and clauses denying survivorship rights complicate the issue. Limited platform practices hinder the effectiveness of the GDPR. Comprehensive protection requires a reevaluation of contract rules to align with human rights.

While the digital afterlife industry offers comfort and memory preservation, it also raises ethical and emotional concerns. Implementing thoughtful regulations and ethical guidelines will ensure that digital immortality enhances our humanity, respecting both the living and the dead.

What can we do?

Researchers recommend several ethical guidelines and regulations. Some of the recommendations include:

Obtaining informed written consent before creating digital personas from people before their death, age restrictions to protect vulnerable groups, clear disclaimers to ensure transparency, and strong data privacy and security measures.

Drawing on ethical frameworks in archaeology, a 2018 study suggested treating digital artefacts as extensions of personhood and suggested regulations to ensure dignity, especially in reproduction services.

Dialogue between policymakers, industry, and academia is essential to developing ethical and regulatory solutions. Providers must also offer a way for users to respectfully end their interaction with a digital persona.

Through thoughtful and responsible development, we can create a future where digital afterlife technology honours our loved ones in a meaningful and respectful way.

As we navigate this brave new world, it's important to balance the benefits of staying connected to our loved ones with the potential risks and ethical dilemmas.

In doing so, we can ensure that the digital afterlife industry develops in a way that honours the memory of the dead and supports the psychological wellbeing of the living.

Sources

1/ https://Google.com/

2/ https://theconversation.com/an-eerie-digital-afterlife-is-no-longer-science-fiction-so-how-do-we-navigate-the-risks-231829

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