What’s Death Got to Do With It?

What’s Death Got to Do With It?
The V1 Edition

No body? No problem. Michael Graziano, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University, imagines a future where people’s brains can be duplicated in a computer program. He says the technology could be coming that would allow a computer to store consciousness in a way that would let them carry on conversations that would seem more-than familiar.

Hossein Rahnama, a visiting professor at MIT Media Lab, is focused on what he calls “augmented eternity.” He wrote in VentureBeat in May 2017 about how it “curates all of a person’s digital information and stores it as a concierge bot that gives expert advice based on real human opinions.” His application is to let users ask questions to a bunch of different AI personas, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have broader applications.

And in 2016, an early employee of software development company Luka and Prince fan built a Prince-powered AI to make an “honest and loving tribute to one of the voices that had shaped my life and my thoughts.”

Death has already been going online for some time now, with social media sites tackling the subject head-on in an era of otherwise-eerie lingering friend requests from no-longer-living friends. Facebook has “memorialized accounts” which adds “Remembering” next to the person’s name on their profile. It nixes the birthday reminders and gives people a place to talk, remember, and see what the deceased shared. Users are encouraged to appoint a legacy contact to administer elements of the account, or can choose to have their profile deleted when they die. Twitter, meanwhile, states that after someone’s passing it can help family members or estate executors deactivate their account.

Funeral homes have gotten in on the online action, as well, in an effort to keep an increasingly-mobile population from just choosing to be cremated and moving on.

The Wall Street Journal writes about the funeral industry’s related technology push – after all, funeral services and caskets do cost more than cremation – and the related bells and whistles.

One outfit especially making news, it notes, is the Foundation Partners Group. Run by Brad Rex, who at one point ran Disney’s Epcot, the privately-owned funeral and cemetery operators offer multi-sensory experience funeral options, complete with big projection screens for videos, audio and even customizable scents.

Robots may one day run the show when it comes to officiating at funerals, as well. A recent funeral industry fair in Japan saw Japanese company SoftBank’s robot “Pepper” in the role of priest, ready to officiate at funerals. Programmed to chant sutras and tap a drum, the Guardian points to it as a “cheaper alternative to a human priest to see your loved ones off into the eternal sleep.”

Plastic molding maker Nissei Eco, which wrote the software for the robot’s funerary endeavor, put it in the context of a growing elderly population with more needs for such services at a time when getting a priest might not always be possible.

Back to the talk of eternity. In Digital magazine Aeon, which focuses on ideas, philosophy and culture, Graziano suggests the changing technology related to death could alter people’s ideas of what it means to be alive, and how they prioritize their physical and digital existences remains to be seen.

Uploading a person’s mind to the computer, he writes, for now remains a somewhat unclear proposition. “It will utterly transform humanity, probably in ways that are more disturbing than helpful. It will change us far more than the Internet did, though perhaps in a similar direction,” he writes. “Even if the chances of all this coming to pass were slim, the implications are so dramatic that it would be wise to think them through seriously. But I’m not sure the chances are slim. In fact, the more I think about this possible future, the more it seems inevitable.”