Digital immortality – between technological advancement and social hesitance

A few months ago, Israel’s Public Broadcasting Corporation created a clip for a new song - “Here Forever“ - with the participation of singers Ofra Haza and Zohar Argov, who had both died many years ago. In the clip, the two singers, who never collaborated during their lives, appear as if they are singing together, performing a song that was only written this year, a song they never recorded. This clip is based on voice samples of the singers and the use of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies that can create a voice recording that sounds authentic, even though it is completely synthetic. The clip was created with the blessing of the singers' families, but no one knows if the singers themselves would have given their consent to the recording of the new song, or agree to collaborate with each other.

This clip is just one example of the return of the dead to our lives by means of digital resuscitation. A few weeks after the launch of “Here Forever”, a “new” song by the Beatles was released. In this case too, the song was based on AI rather than authentic recording. Similarly, the late Andy Warhol is heard narrating the Netflix series Andy Warhol Diaries, based on the diaries he wrote but never actually recorded. In Israel, five women who were murdered by their partners were re-animated “back to life” on a national campaign “Listen to Our Voices”, to warn of the early signs of murderous domestic violence. These campaigns are based on technologies similar to those used in My Heritage company's Deep Nostalgia project, that allows any of us to introduce motion to animate still images of deceased family members taken many years before videography became widespread and accessible. These technologies are limited to the frame of the computer screen or smartphone, but there are already companies that display holograms of the dead, or use augmented and virtual reality means to create, or reconstruct, so to speak, a physical presence of the representations of the dead in the space of the living.

Technologically constructed immortality – do we want it?

Technologies can simulate the voice and appearance of those now dead, but can they mimic the personality of the dead? Regarding this aspect, too, there are already platforms which take the digital footprint a person leaves behind during his or her life, and feed them into an AI-based chat-bot interface that, drawing on generative AI (like ChatGPT), can create new content based on the behavior patterns of the person who has died. This should not surprise us. Netflix, Facebook, Google, TikTok, Instagram and others are already able to identify our taste in music or cinema, characterize our political stances and predict our consumer behavior using similar processes. They know what we love or hate, what makes us laugh and what moves us, but also when we react with rage, admiration, indifference, or enthusiasm. Therefore, it is no longer a technological challenge to create an avatar that looks like us, sounds like us and even thinks like us in our lifetime and after our death.

This technological vision fits well with some contemporary approaches to grief and mourning. The therapeutic approaches of the 20th century, according to which the mourners should let the dead go and move on with their lives, are gradually being replaced by other understandings, one of which is the Continuing Bonds theory of grief (Klass, Silverman & Nickman, 1996). Professionals in the field of grief and bereavement recognize today that though death may be the end of life, it does not always mean the end of relationships, as these can continue to exist even after death.

However, technological progress that allows the creation of a multi-dimensional digital representation (that will allegedly allow a dialogue between the dead and the living) is currently not welcomed by many people. The technology companies that promise an eternal digital afterlife tend to have short lives, and they usually close down a few years after they were founded. The public refuses, at least for now, to adopt these technological developments. A study I conducted of Israeli users shows that these digital tools are perceived as a violation of the dignity of the dead and they cause dissatisfaction among the audience. The Israeli public surveyed does not perceive these tools as a “séance” or a connection between the dead and the living. Accordingly, most of the surveyed public were reluctant to interact with the representations of the dead or with their profiles in the online space.

Who controls the ghost-bots?

The Internet has been around for at least two decades, but it is constantly changing and is still perceived by some as innovative and sometimes incomprehensible. Although generative AI has been around for only a short time, in recent months it has also been accessible to ordinary users and has undergone a remarkable boom. And although we might find it efficient to use AI tools for writing code, writing letters, and even composing music and drawing images, there is something a little daunting about putting our personality in the hands of a machine, the workings of which we don’t understand, and without knowledge of what data it draws on, or how it reacts. After all, even though many of us “live online” and find it difficult to take our eyes off the screen, as long as we are alive, we choose and control which parts of our lives - of our personality, of our social relationships, of our opinions – we share online, and which parts we don't. As long as we are alive, we strive to control information about us and to exercise our power to decide what we tell whom, when, and on which platform, as well as what we keep to ourselves or share with others face to face. However, in this era of AI, bots and other post-death technologies, this control may be taken from us after death, and it is not at all certain that we would want an algorithm, however smart it may be, to take control in our place. We often tend to welcome new technologies, but at least in the area of digital afterlife, we still need to figure things out.


Further reading:

Bassett, D. J. (2022). The Creation and Inheritance of Digital Afterlives. Palgrave Macmillan.

Besser, A., Morse, T., & Zeigler-Hill, V. (2023). Who Wants to (Digitally) Live Forever? The Connections That Narcissism Has with Motives for Digital Immortality and the Desire for Digital Avatars. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 20(17), Article 17.

Klass, D., Silverman, P.R., & Nickman, S.L. (Eds) (1996). Continuing bonds: New understandings of grief. London, UK: Taylor & Francis

Morse, T. (2023). Digital necromancy: Users’ perceptions of digital afterlife and posthumous communication technologies. Information, Communication & Society, 0(0), 1–17.