By Sergio Sperat

In July 2002, Argentina’s economic collapse drove the unemployment rate to 21.5%[1] which had a profound impact: almost 1 in 4 working age Argentines were jobless. Now, we face a different reality that is similarly dramatic: the Coronavirus pandemic will inexorably affect many of those that are near and dear to our hearts.

 

Is there post-biological life? Since the beginning of humanity, we have pondered this question. Aside from the religious and philosophical implications, we must now explore the influence of the digital realm. Could we become digitally immortal?

The MIT Media Lab has been working for more than five years on the Augmented Eternity project, which seeks to establish reliable, credible, and real interactions between an individual and a digital avatar (created from another individual’s online data).

If we consider the gigabytes of information that we generate daily through our virtual interactions, it is reasonable to assume that, given the algorithms, we could track our behavior through these voluntary and involuntary digital footprints. In an age of digital natives, this experience is a given.

What happens to our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram profiles when our biological selves die? Who manages them? Who removes them? Who responds to new incoming messages or friendship requests? Does it make sense that these profiles generate new posts, likes and shares? According to one [2], around 1.7 million Facebook users die every year. If someone is responsible for managing a deceased individual’s “digital presence” – replete with activity that is representative of their personality, traits and values – could that be considered a form of “digital immortality”?

In an episode of Netflix´s Black Mirror called “Be Right Back” (spoiler alert!), a company recreates the personality of a deceased husband from his digital records, and then transfers that personality to a human-sized droid that impersonates him. This provides his widow with “someone” to keep her company. These possibilities raise innumerable ethical and moral issues. Considering this example from the perspective of life 2020, could a “digital personality” be represented by a voice assistant in our cell phones or a text chat-bot?

The restrictions placed on us during this pandemic such as social distancing and sheltering-in-place confront us with the real and devastating possibility of not being able to personally say goodbye to our loved ones who have fallen ill. Limits on social gatherings has made it challenging to memorialize those who have passed. Is there a potential to navigate the painful process of loss and to engage in meaningful mourning through the virtual environment?

Although the Black Mirror episode is an interesting – perhaps even creepy to some – work of fiction, the idea of creating a proxy to represent us after we have died is not the central feature of digital immortality. Rather, it is the desire to extend our present-day persona beyond the confines of our biological bodies. This form of virtual augmentation can take place today, while we are still alive. It is possible for an AI agent to process and transform our experiences documented in emails, text messages, audio files, social media interactions, and presentations into a true representation of a living person. Within the context of social isolation, a teacher could answer questions and explain topics through her digital avatar, reaching an unlimited amount of students in a more comprehensive and faster manner than ever before. This ability to share cyber-experiences could contribute to new Internet-based business models. Perhaps instead of “asking Google” or talking to Siri or Alexa – which are generic, non-personal interfaces – we could ask questions to a renowned historian or scientist on a wealth of topics. As experts, we could participate in more conferences, discussions, and projects thanks to our digital avatar, and their knowledge could integrate seamlessly into our own.

The rhetoric around digital immortality emphasizes our desire to be remembered not only by our ideas and thoughts, but also by our intentions and emotions. While some of these ideas are more provocative, in the short term, our organizations continue to lose knowledge and talent due to retirements, implicit undocumented knowledge, layoffs, reassignments, and relocations.

What if that lost information could outlast our position in the organization, or even our lifetime?

 

References

[1] Argentina´s unemployment index as published by INDEC (National Institute of Statistics and Census).

[2] https://www.thedigitalbeyond.com/2018/01/1-7-million-u-s-facebook-users-will-pass-away-in-2018/

 

 

 

The Future Speaks platform offers stimulating thought leadership to the TFS community.  The program is a unique apprenticeship that pairs TFS alumni with diverse speaking and writing opportunities. Email us for more information. 

 

Sergio Sperat

Knowledge Strategy Manager, Estratega

TFS Portland 2019 Alumni
Certified Foresight Practitioner