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Digital resurrection: Do dead people have the right to forbid it?

In the realm of science fiction, the concept of reconnecting with loved ones posthumously through technology, digital resurrection, has long intrigued audiences.

This notion, once a mere fabric of imaginative storytelling as seen in a 2014 episode of “Black Mirror,” is rapidly evolving into a reality.

The episode depicted a young widow finding solace in an app that replicated her late husband’s online presence. It seemed far-fetched, yet this fiction is inching closer to fact.

Evolution of digital resurrection

In 2017, the company Eternime proposed an audacious idea — creating avatars of deceased individuals using their digital history.

Termed as “Skype for the dead,” this concept, though revolutionary, didn’t gain traction. The technological landscape, particularly machine-learning and AI algorithms, wasn’t ready. Perhaps, more importantly, neither were we.

Fast forward to 2024, and the landscape has drastically changed. With the widespread use of Chat GPT-like programs, the prospect of digitally resurrecting loved ones is no longer a distant possibility but a looming reality.

This raises critical questions: Should digital resurrection be permitted, and are we equipped to handle the ensuing legal and ethical dilemmas?

Insight through research

Dr. Masaki Iwasaki, a Harvard Law School alumnus and assistant professor at Seoul National University, delves into these questions in his recent study.

The research presents US adults with hypothetical scenarios: a woman in her 20s dies in a car accident, and a company offers to digitally resurrect her, albeit with ambiguous consent.

Participants were asked to rate the social acceptability of this resurrection, considering factors like ethics and privacy.

The findings are telling. When the deceased explicitly consented to digital resurrection, acceptability increased significantly compared to scenarios where consent was absent.

“Although I expected societal acceptability for digital resurrection to be higher when consent was expressed, the stark difference in acceptance rates — 58% for consent versus 3% for dissent — was surprising,” says Iwasaki.

This underscores the paramount importance of the deceased’s wishes in public opinion regarding digital resurrection.

“While the will of the deceased is important in determining the societal acceptability of digital resurrection, other factors such as ethical concerns about life and death, along with general apprehension towards new technology are also significant,” says Iwasaki.

Balancing rights and sentiments

The study highlights a discord between existing law and public sentiment. The general consensus that the dead’s wishes should be honored is not legally protected in most jurisdictions.

This disparity is evident in instances like the digital recreation of John Lennon in “Forrest Gump” or the animated hologram of Amy Winehouse, where the rights of the deceased were superseded.

We should certainly engage in this conversation now. Many generative AI chatbot services, like Replika and Project December, already facilitate interactions with chatbots that replicate the personalities of real people.

The ‘You, Only Virtual’ (YOV) service enables users to create a ‘versona’ chatbot by uploading someone’s text messages, emails, and voice conversations.

Additionally, Microsoft secured a patent in 2020 for developing chatbots using text, voice, and image data of living individuals, historical figures, and fictional characters, offering 2D or 3D renderings.

This brings us to an essential consideration: should we include digital directives in our wills? Iwasaki believes it’s a conversation worth having, especially given the lack of clear legal regulations.

The road ahead for digital resurrection

Documenting such wishes could provide clarity for family and associates and may hold weight in future legal frameworks.

“For those with strong preferences documenting their wishes could be meaningful,” says Iwasaki. “At a minimum, it serves as a clear communication of one’s will to family and associates, and may be considered when legal foundations are better established in the future.”

Iwasaki plans to extend his research to the digital resurrection of celebrities and broader legal rights. He advocates for an opt-in rule, requiring consent for digital resurrection, as a potential safeguard for the deceased’s rights.

“It’s necessary first to discuss what rights should be protected, to what extent, then create rules accordingly,” he explains.

“My research, building upon prior discussions in the field, argues that the opt-in rule requiring the deceased’s consent for digital resurrection might be one way to protect their rights.”

His work underscores a critical juncture in our technological journey: balancing innovation with ethical responsibility and legal foresight.

Concluding thoughts: Cool concept vs. creepy reality

In summary, the concept of digital resurrection, once a science fiction fantasy, is rapidly becoming a feasible reality, as demonstrated by the evolution from speculative stories to tangible technological advancements.

Initially popularized by a “Black Mirror” episode, the idea of reanimating the deceased through their digital footprints has seen significant development, from Eternime’s ambitious “Skype for the dead” proposal in 2017 to the current use of AI and machine-learning technologies.

These advancements have brought us to a point where creating digital avatars of loved ones post-mortem is not just imaginable but achievable, prompting critical reflections on the ethical, legal, and social implications of such technologies.

Dr. Masaki Iwasaki’s research at Seoul National University sheds light on these concerns by exploring public opinion on digital resurrection under varying conditions of consent.

His findings reveal a stark preference for scenarios where the deceased had explicitly consented to their digital afterlife, highlighting the importance of individual wishes in the acceptance of digital resurrection.

Despite the growing technological capability to recreate individuals digitally, there exists a significant gap between public sentiment and legal protections regarding the rights of the deceased.

Iwasaki’s work advocates for the inclusion of digital directives in legal wills and suggests an opt-in model for consent as a way to navigate the complex interplay between innovation, ethics, and the law.

This dialogue is crucial as we confront the realities of a future where digital resurrection becomes commonplace, urging a thoughtful approach to the legacy we leave in an increasingly digital world.

The full study was published in the journal Asian Journal of Law and Economics.


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