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Will the next decade bring us life after death?


TextGeraldine Wharry

We now have the opportunity to live post-death via griefbots or avatars, prompting us to examine the way we mourn and how this might continue to evolve

In the article “The Transhuman Future is here” we explored “virtual” humans powered by an AI digital brain, already rolling out in customer service applications, no to mention Balmain campaigns too. This is happening in parallel with the fast expansion of neurotech and cyborgs, bringing us closer to heightened human performance. But what if you could beat death?  

As a global and modern society, we now have the opportunity to live post-death via griefbots or avatars, now having generated enough data streams to replicate ourselves. If in our digital afterlife we take the form of a virtual human, do we need to rethink death, the mourning process and the circle of life as we know it?

THE DEATH OF DEATH IRL  

In recent years, the idea that ageing is a disease that can be cured is gaining ground, along with its controversial and ethical implications. The desire to reverse ageing is not new though. Ancient myths such as the Fountain of Youth and the tales surrounding it have existed for thousands of years, appearing as far back as the fifth century BC in writings by Herodotus. It was especially prominent in the 16th century, when Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León went to Florida in 1513 to search for these legendary waters.

Technological resurrection such as Cryonics has been around for decades, with the first body frozen in 1967. Ideas of hibernation are still being explored today with Philips Design at Dutch Design Week proposing a speculative scenario of future healthcare in 2050 centered around human hibernation. Presented at the Embassy of Health, Philips collaborated with students from various universities to create Hiber Nation. In this future, humans sleep for three months to reduce their impact on the environment.

Today, events bringing together transhumanists and everyday folk are highlighting the scientific progress within reach and our obsession with escaping what was once deemed inevitable. This could be the biggest hack of the human condition: reaching 200 hundred years of life expectancy. In June last year at the EP7 “digital guinguette”, the Association Française Transhumaniste (AFT) showed videos of Longlonglife founder, TedX speaker and scientist Guilhem Velvé Casquillas, describing the hallmarks of ageing that eventually lead us to death, and why these mechanisms could be avoided. Last summer, Yale University Scientists made a discovery that could someday challenge our understanding of what it means to die by bringing a dead brain back to life. 

According to experts at MIT and AFT, 90 per cent of global deaths are due to ageing. Didier Coeurnelle, of The Healthy Life Extension Society, thinks this is an unacceptable tragedy. Meanwhile, the MIT Technology Review has dedicated its September 2019 issue to the topic of longevity with their cover: “Old age is over!”. In the article “What if ageing weren’t inevitable, but a curable disease?”, David Sinclair, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School states that, “Medicine should view ageing not as a natural consequence of growing older, but as a condition in and of itself.” “Old age,” in his view, “is simply a pathology – and, like all pathologies, can be successfully treated.”

The most famous technology with the potential of changing what it means to be human would have to be CRISP-R CAS-9 which can be used to edit genes within organisms. In 2019, two documentaries chronicle the implications of editing humans at birth or with the goal of reversing age, amongst other motivations, with “Code of the Wild” and “Unnatural Selection”. Both investigative pieces examine whether biohacking is ethical and follow scientists and amateurs at the forefront of the next century’s healthcare revolution. 

A growing number of companies and scientists are changing our basic approach to ageing, signalling a potential gold rush to “anti-ageing” drugs. It seems long life is the greatest investment opportunity of all time with Human Longevity, Inc. (HLI) who, according to its website, has created the world’s largest database of sequenced genomes and phenotypic data and are revolutionising human health by generating personalised genomic health reports. Another organisation, Juvenescence, is building an ecosystem of drug companies, scientists, universities, and institutions specialised in ageing, senescence, and the diseases connected to ageing by combining their IP and Juvenescence’s resources, financial support, licensing, and royalties.

“Our fear of being forgotten and disappearing might be the biggest motivator of change. Eternime, a company pioneering digital immortality by creating cyber imitations of people based on their online footprint, has over 46,000 people who have signed up to use their entire digital shadow to continue their life after death as a digital avatar” 

Laduram Vishnoi, in his article for Entrepreneur IndiaHow Can Artificial Intelligence Immortalise Human Beings?” explains that futurist Ray Kurzweil, who is currently working for Google, predicts that by 2029, humans will be extending their lives considerably or even indefinitely. We touched upon this in our article “The Future Transhuman is here” when discussing brain-computer interface such as Neuralink, created by Elon Musk. 

This points to a future human who is a cyborg, a merging of biological and digital intelligence echoed in the possibilities of 3D printed artificial organs. 50 years after the first successful heart transplant, experts believe we may be nearing an era where synthetic organs could easily and affordably be printed for patients on demand. Laurent Simons, a nine-year-old Belgian boy who will be the world’s youngest university graduate, wants to work on artificial organs that can prolong life, implying the great scientific minds of the future might make regenerative medicine their priority.

YOUR DIGITAL IMMORTALITY

It’s one thing to extend our life expectancy, it’s another one to resurrect the dead. The book “Death and the Machine” challenges the conventional understanding we have of the biological cycle of life in the era of robotics. It examines issues such as machine consciousness and AI and the changing nature of humanity at the intersection of technology. Transhumanist Zoltan Istvan in his article “If our thoughts live forever, do we too?”  argues that if we can’t avoid death through medical innovations, we should rely on robots, AI, and other technologies to create an everlasting version of ourselves.

Our fear of being forgotten and disappearing might be the biggest motivator of change. Marius Ursache in his TEDxBucharest talk explains that according to ancient cultures, “We die three times: When we can’t take care of ourselves, when they put us in the grave, and when our name is spoken for the last time.” Ursache, a designer, entrepreneur, and former doctor, created Eternime after the death of a friend. The company is pioneering digital immortality and creates cyber imitations of people based on their online footprint. To date, over 46,000 have signed up to use their entire digital shadow to continue their life after death as a digital avatar.

Replika is an AI bot with similar motivations. It’s a new type of social media designed to create intimacy between an AI version of ourselves and our loved ones. Its personality evolves as the digital surrogate chats with users regularly, adding to the Replika’s knowledge. Eugenia Kuyda, the co-founder, created it after suddenly losing her best friend. Similarly, after a series of dealings with grief, Ocean Capewell resurrected her dead friends as The Sims video game characters so she could interact with them.

The fundamentals of digital immortality are intimately linked with what you tweet, post, text, email, and blog about. Your life-long trail of data means you could live virtually an eternal life, however, this will be a version of you that will evolve on its own long after your physical death. Cyber Funerals and Digital Undertakers are part of this growing conversation with a new generation of companies whose sole job is to dispose of your data after your death. Ruby-Lott Lavigna opens her piece for WIRED with “Your online data is a bit like single-use plastic: there’s tonnes of the stuff and it’s very hard to get rid of.” Fraud is an artist duo casting in resin blocks hardware containing personal information as a creative solution for how to deal with our data after we die.

The concept of “digital embalming” raises the question of how we want to be remembered forever. In a Nowness and Dazed Beauty collaboration, artist and director Frederik Heyman represents Isabelle Hupert, Kim Peers, and Michèle Lamy memorialised as avatars post-mortem. He explains “I’m mesmerised by the embalming technique mainly used in Puerto Rico in which dead people get to attend and celebrate their own funeral. They are staged as the central guest, in a setting and styling that is considered as a representation of the life of the deceased. These images expose the desire to overcome time, space and a physical presence.”

Eternal digital life echoes the notion of the flattening of time in our post-Internet era, the “big flat now” as 032c calls it, with no sense of end or beginning, yesterday or tomorrow. Last year, an AI brought Salvador Dali back to life and androids that offer “digital immortality” are now being mass-produced by Promobot. The Robo-C can’t walk but has over 600 facial expressions and a sophisticated AI personality. It can be manufactured to look like any human, including Einstein or Arnold Schwarzenegger opening up unknown commercial avenues as the technology evolves.   

The academic paper “Digital Immortality and Virtual Humans” presents the concepts of “Digital Endurance, Digital Persistence, The Restless Dead, One-Way Immortality and Two-Way Immortality”, thus by offering a framework for how digital technology can be harnessed to commemorate and memorialise the dead. It goes on to present the various types of “Digital Grief Practices”, and creating a “Virtual persona”, showing the deep and complex implications of having control and most of all, understanding your digital afterlife.

THE ETHICS OF IT ALL 

New technologies offer the possibility of digitally interacting with someone from beyond the grave. But they also force us to face the ethics of bringing people back from the dead. Convincing digital surrogates are rapidly evolving and will likely reach the mainstream in the next decade. But what about the ethics of grieving? Continuing to interact with a loved one in the wake of their death will change the way we deal with the cycle of mourning. And it’s hard enough protecting one’s privacy these days, how will we protect the privacy of the dead?

In our continual quest to hack the human condition, are we truly prepared to disrupt death? Opening up the door to eternal life has deep implications for ourselves, our loved ones and generations to come. Eugenia Kuyda of Replika argues “When people say building this avatar is actually avoiding facing the reality that someone is gone, I say ‘no, it’s exactly the opposite, it’s actually facing it.’ Pointing to the fact that, in western culture, the natural reaction is to move on and avoid thinking about someone’s death.” 

If we choose to maintain griefbots, we must also consider the environmental implications. According to the latest scientific data, running an AI uses the equivalent of five car’s carbon emissions. And when it comes to humans living a much longer life, up to 200 years, how does this factor into the overpopulation problem experts believe is one of the primary causes of global warming, causing some to become birth strikers. Would this mean that in the future, being born would have a premium in an overburdened planet?

Concurrently biotech and the public access to CRISPR gene editing kits show we are playing a game with our DNA legacy. Shouldn’t new technology be focused on living better, not longer? Considering old age as a disease could further stigmatise the older population who is already suffering from ageism, most notably in the workplace, starting as young as 40 years old.

We have to consider the unexpected long-term consequences of technology and policies and learn from those crippled by short-term thinking. When the Chinese government enforced a one-child policy, they did not foresee the explosion of girls being abandoned and several decades later, the rise of wife trafficking now that men outnumber women by 70 million in China.

THE FULL CIRCLE 

Death exists in many forms. You can’t beat death. Is the need for control over every aspect of our lives a healthy motivation? Death is terrifying and the loss of loved ones causes insurmountable pain. But out of painful endings also comes rebirth, which is the irony.

The idea of grieving in the digital era is complex, as shown in Twitter’s recent decision to delete accounts inactive for more than six months and the broader conversation this has sparked. In the article “AI and Philosophy: Playing with the Boundaries Between Life and Death” philosopher Patrick Stokes states we should prepare mentally as “Technology is going to make us grapple – and grapple hard – with what we really are. I think it’s important we start that work now, rather than waiting until we’re 10 years into the technology and it’s gotten ahead of us.”

Will the knowledge we will never die force us to constantly monitor our digital footprint in fear we may spawn a terrible AI surrogate? What if our AI algorithms were manipulated? This could become the virtual manifestation of a purgatory, Dante’s “Inferno”, a digital realisation of heaven or hell, an important facet of nearly all major religions

In a future populated with digital ghosts, are we cheating ourselves from an ending and the ability for life to go full circle? The concept of a harmonious full circle was recently explored by the Dutch Invertuals exhibition “Unity: The circle” as “the ultimate symbol of unity, perfection and infinity”. 

In the spirit of “connectivity” and our internet-fueled obsession with it, is the full circle of life now digital eternity? But if we can’t define and explain our consciousness, how can we claim an eternal digital self? Alternately, with exponentially growing AI technology that shows intuition, can we deny the consciousness of our digital avatar? A digital avatar is not physical absence, it carries the weight of existence in a realm of blurring boundaries. True to Shinto beliefs, in Japan old robot dogs are given funerals. In the future, if a digital surrogate needs to be terminated, for any number of reasons, would this cause another tidal wave of grief? It would show that no matter what, this emotion isn’t to be feared, and one that will always be a fundamental aspect of human nature.

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