Life after death … the high tech way to interact

[From The Sydney Morning Herald, where the story includes additional images]

[Image: Freddie Mercury … a video of the singer is seen on the screen during the closing ceremony of the London Games. Photo: Reuters]

Life after death … the high tech way to interact

August 15, 2012
Glenda Kwek

Twenty six years ago, Freddie Mercury electrified thousands of spectators at a concert in London’s Wembley Stadium.

On Sunday – 20 years after his death – the late Queen frontman did the same again – with the same performance – belting out “d-ey-o, d-ey-o” from a giant screen to an 80,000-strong crowd at the closing ceremony of the London Games.

And the performance, the latest in a line of “digital resurrections”, may be a sign of how technologies both old and new are being harnessed to allow the living to interact with the dead.

Earlier in the ceremony, a video of John Lennon singing Imagine played as children signed the lyrics and joined in. In April, Tupac Shakur – who was shot dead in 1996 – was digitally recreated for a performance with Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg/Lion at the Coachella Music Festival in California.

But how much of this was just a gimmick? Who owns someone’s digital life after they are dead? Is technology changing the way in which we communicate with the dead – not just celebrities, but also our loved ones?

Dr Michael Arnold, a senior lecturer in the social studies of technology at the University of Melbourne, thinks so.

The communications technology expert cites online memorials and social networking sites as an example of how we are already modifying our behaviour towards lost friends and relatives.

“[When] a person dies and the social networking sites remains open to their friends, it’s a very interesting phenomenon where … people use the site to talk directly to the dead person using the first-person pronoun: ‘Do you remember when we were walking in the park?’.

“People today don’t characteristically carry a locket containing a sample of hair from the dead person, whereas in the Victorian era, that was often done. Instead, people might carry video and digital photographs in their pocket.”

But our digital legacies would extend beyond these images and websites as more and more of our lives become dependent on technology, Dr Arnold said.

Software that acts as our personal assistants – “intelligent agents” – could be uploaded on to our computer and smartphones, looking after our diaries and making appointments for us.

“The assistant would be able to receive an email and – using technology to understand the semantics of it – understand what the query is, look back at the hundreds of thousands of emails that I’ve sent, anticipate what my response to that email would be, compose the email and send it off. These kinds of systems are being developed here and now,” Dr Arnold said.

And the email replies may not stop after death.

“Whoever is looking after my affairs when I die may make the decision not to switch that off,” Dr Arnold said. “I could then continue to correspond to people, continue to contribute to blogs, to discussion lists. Through video technology I could conference with people. For all intents and purposes, I could remain ‘alive’. That’s a prospect we need to consider.”

Adam Ford, the Australian organiser of the Singularity Summit, an annual conference on artificial intelligence, said in an age in which much of our lives is recorded, recreating relatives and friends who have died would not be a far-fetched idea.

“The Epic of Gilgamesh tells how Gilgamesh was looking for immortality or some form of resurrection. All these myths and fairytales – we are beginning to do similar things with technology,” he said.

“The more information we record about ourselves, the more we can use to create a flesh-out model of ourselves for the future. You might miss your grandmother, and you’ll have enough information to recreate her and fill in the gaps with your own experience. And then you might have your digital grandma comfort you every now and again when you are feeling sad.

“It might seem like your grandmother, but is it really her? It’s a philosophical question about what makes an individual and what makes you.”

But while some might welcome the resurrection of their loved ones, even if only in a virtual context, the increasing sophistication of technology could blur the line between reality and illusion, experts say.

“We’re beginning to live in a world where it’s extremely difficult for people to determine what is real from what is not real,” Assistant Professor Ryan Calo, an expert in privacy and robotics at Stanford University, told Yahoo!. “It’s kind of a technology vertigo. Maybe there will come a day you will physically witness something and not believe it.”


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