Tue. Jan 18th, 2022

The internet has a long memory. Our digital legacy consists of years of search requests, images and comments. American beginners want to turn that data into something more purposeful.

Silicon Valley’s version of immortality does not involve the transformation of brain waves into binary code, another topic of this New Year’s Lex column on blue sky thinking. Instead, new ventures like Ether9 and HereAfter are developing AI-powered services that use digital intelligence avatars. They will continue to interact with others even after the person on whom they are based is gone.

Companies like Facebook and SafeBeyond already commemorate existing social media posts and digital assets. Eter9 intends to go a step further with a new social network that offers users a virtual self to build. This peer learns from your interactions and can then connect with the world as if you were present. After this, AI takes voice recordings and makes chatbots that can repeat someone’s conversation.

There are several possible medical and commercial applications for such technologies. Sonanties can create AI voices for those who cannot speak. JLL, the real estate services group, has partnered with Google to launch its own AI assistant called JiLL.

But practical applications increase rather than eliminate ethical concerns. The wealth of online data available means virtual personas can be created in theory without the say-so of the individual. This increases the risk of fraud. U.S. lawmakers have introduced a bill that would make the use of synthetic media known as deepfakes.

For now, the threat is limited by the clumsiness of the creations. Academics Maggi Savin-Baden and David Burden say online personas built today are unlikely to be confused with a still alive topic. Improvements in natural language processing and the ability to learn are required.

Even if compelling digital avatars become possible, the demand may not be high. Several beginners have invested in digital resurrections, but none have yet created a mainstream service. Technologists may simply discover that ordinary people are more reconciled to death than the natural outgrowth of life than some of Silicon Valley residents appear to be.

This is the last of five articles on blue sky thinking published by Lex today. Look out for the others in Lex online.

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