Digital immortality poses a question for my mom, as well as possibly for you

A few days ago, my mom received a Google Home device as a Christmas present. She, 84-years-old, has been getting acquainted with the chatbot ever since, spending mornings listening to its recount of the latest news and the day’s weather forecast. She sometimes even asks it what she should cook for lunch or dinner and it gives her good suggestions of different possible Korean dishes. The device has been set up for both English and Korean languages.

My mom lives alone because my dad is in an assisted-living home due to dementia and limited mobility. She used to visit him everyday but now sees him about 3 or 4 times a week. Watching her playfully interact with the Google Home, I asked her if she would be interested in a similar device, but one that used dad’s voice and exemplified some of his personality, even recalling his memories at times? It would not be dad exactly, but a collection of some of his memories that would have been trained by AI (Artificial Intelligence) to answer her questions in similar ways as he had done before dementia. She became quiet and pondered my out-of-the-blue question carefully.

Science and technology are making great leaps forward into the field of digital immortality, and will be increasingly presenting these types of questions to all of us. The current “product roadmap” to digital immorality is getting clearer by the day.

Digital immortality can be summarized by the following equation: “semantic analysis + social internet use + Artificial Intelligence = immortality”. Basically, by accumulating all of my dad’s text and video information, we would have a data set that could map and replicate elements of his personality. Earlier in his career, he had published a successful autobiography (as told to a professional writer), titled “Born out of Conflict“. Additionally, my dad also has hundreds, if not thousands, of sermons and speeches that have been recorded over his career, including some clips from television interviews. He was the first foreigner to be granted a missionary visa by the US government to come into the country and setup a ministry for the “troubled” American youths of the 1960’s. Then, later, he dedicated himself to provide ministry for the growing Korean immigrant community in the greater Seattle area during the 1970’s, after the US quota was lifted on Asian immigration. We have a good amount of text, audio and video data on him to be able to train an AI algorithm that could capture elements of his logical reasoning, his various beliefs, and his regular tendencies under different situations. This would be the AI semantic analysis of his textual data, as well as the AI behavioral analysis of personality within a social context (although not using his social internet usage but rather his videos, photographs, and the context of his sermons). Furthermore, while he currently suffers from dementia, he still speaks lucidly enough to easily read scripts, both in Korean and English, so that we could capture his voice, intonations, and enough words to program a chatbot for authentic-sounding voice responses when presented with a question or asked for an opinion. Just think about the scripts used to program Alexa. Voila, a believable representation of my dad for my mom to talk to instead of the Google Home.

If we were to create such a chatbot of my dad, it would be the MVP (Minimally Viable Product) of the current product roadmap to digital immorality. I’m not talking about an actual build of an avatar (digital clone) to co-exist with my dad, learning from (or calibrating with) him further, until he dies while the avatar continues to live on to impact the world. The concept of digital cloning is well on its path to reality. Neither am I advocating the prospect of preserving and connecting my dad’s brain to a computer so that he can live in some version of virtual reality forever. These are examples of some of the long-term goals within the product roadmap of digital immortality, and billions of dollars are being spent to make it all happen.

Physicist Michio Kaku, best-selling author and professor at The City College of New York, “believes life after death can be achieved through digital means. This does not mean science will one day allow us to stand before the Pearly Gates but, rather, technology will be able to immortalise our memories, personalities and quirks in a way that will be accessible for future generations. Doing so could, Dr Kaku believes, recreate genius minds like Albert Einstein based on his life’s writings, speeches and mannerisms.” So, yes, there could be potential versions of Einstein teaching physics at different universities, or versions of Steve Jobs leading “innovation labs” at various companies. But digital immorality would not be just for the super intelligent and gifted, a few thought-leaders in this field believe that regular humans will be able to upload their brains to the computer by 2035-2045 timeframe.

Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google, has “claimed technology will allow humans to connect their brain to the internet by the 2030s. He said: “In the 2030s we are going to send nano-robots into the brain that will provide full-immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system and will connect our neocortex to the cloud.” Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov “has made similar claims, stating humans will have the power to back-up their brains onto the cloud by 2045. Companies like Elon Musk’s Neuralink are already working on developing a computer-brain interface that will in theory blur the border between human and machine”.

There is a fast-growing group called transhumanists that believes technology will allow humans to transcend the physical limitations of biology. Kurzweil, who is also an awardee of the United States’ highest honor in technology and innovation, is a transhumanist. Acclaimed Microsoft Research team members Gordon Bell and Jim Gray are also heavily engaged in the quest for digital immortality. Another tech giant Facebook, or Meta, is betting that the future of the internet will be in its metaverse, “defined most simply as a virtual world where people can socialize, work, and play”. Big, influential tech giants are eyeing this field.

But for now, let’s get back to my mom and the MVP version of digital immorality. I’ve observed Google Home in its standard form filling a void in my mom’s life, although to different degrees from day to day. Maybe she will tire of it once the novelty wears off. But for now, when I ask Google Home to say in Korean that my mom is not very smart and it replies in a highly honorific form exactly what was requested, we both fall to the floor holding our sides in laughter. You see, my mom is a very social person who thrives on witty dialogue and long engaging conversations. That’s why I wanted to see what her answer would be. I know that she is lonely at times in that big house by herself. How do you think she answered the question? How would you have answered it?

Let me give a little context to how people might generally feel about the concept of digital immortality. Marcus Ursache in 2014 proposed the idea of developing avatars for the deceased at one of the MIT Entrepreneurship Development Programs. Even before incorporating into a legitimate company, he was then interviewed for hundreds of articles around the world, and more than 30,000 people signed up for the beta program. His company eventually became Eternime. Obviously, the concept strongly resonated! Meanwhile, however, David Burden, a developer of Virtual Personas and the author of Virtual Humans, has been conducting an informal survey on people’s attitude toward digital immortality. He says, “When I’ve carried out polls on this topic during lectures, it’s interesting that people are often far keener to have their own virtual persona living on after their death than they are to have a persona of a loved one – it seems they’d rather have a clean break than be virtually checked up on!”

My mom, after a long pause, said to me, stop saying such ridiculous things to me. Why would I want a fake version of your dad bothering and pestering me? Stop talking nonsense.

I’d love to see your comments about your views on digital immortality. It’s a fascinating topic that will eventually affect us all.

*This post was written with the aid of a research writing tool called Addy