Skip to main content

Advertisement

Advertisement

What should happen to our data when we die?

The new Anthony Bourdain documentary, Roadrunner, is one of many projects dedicated to the larger-than-life chef, writer and television personality. But the film has drawn outsize attention, in part because of its subtle reliance on artificial intelligence technology.

Anthony Bourdain’s AI-generated voice is just the latest example of a celebrity being digitally reincarnated. These days, though, it could happen to any of us, the author writes.

Anthony Bourdain’s AI-generated voice is just the latest example of a celebrity being digitally reincarnated. These days, though, it could happen to any of us, the author writes.

The new Anthony Bourdain documentary, Roadrunner, is one of many projects dedicated to the larger-than-life chef, writer and television personality. But the film has drawn outsize attention, in part because of its subtle reliance on artificial intelligence technology.

Using several hours of Bourdain’s voice recordings, a software company created 45 seconds of new audio for the documentary.

The AI voice sounds just like Bourdain speaking from the great beyond; at one point in the movie, it reads an email he sent before his death by suicide in 2018.

“If you watch the film, other than that line you mentioned, you probably don’t know what the other lines are that were spoken by the AI, and you’re not going to know,” Morgan Neville, the director, said in an interview with The New Yorker.

“We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.”

The time for that panel may be now. The dead are being digitally resurrected with growing frequency: As 2D projections, 3D holograms, CGI renderings and AI chat bots.

A holograph of rapper Tupac Shakur took the stage at Coachella in 2012, 15 years after his death; a likeness of a 19-year-old Audrey Hepburn starred in a 2014 Galaxy chocolate ad; and Carrie Fisher and Peter Cushing posthumously reprised their roles in some of the newer Star Wars films.

Few examples drew as much attention as the singing, dancing hologram that Kanye West gave Kim Kardashian West for her birthday last October, cast in the image of her late father, Robert Kardashian.

Much like Bourdain’s vocal doppelgänger, the hologram’s voice was trained on real audio recordings but spoke in sentences never uttered by Kardashian; as if communicating from the afterlife, the hologram expressed pride in Kardashian West’s pursuit of a law degree and described Kanye West as “the most, most, most, most, most genius man in the whole world”.

Daniel Reynolds, whose company, Kaleida, produced the hologram of Kardashian, said that costs for projects of its nature start at US$30,000 (S$40,800) and can run higher than US$100,000 when transportation and display are factored in.

But there are other, much more affordable forms of digital reincarnation; as of this year, on the genealogy site MyHeritage, visitors can animate family photos of relatives long dead, essentially creating innocuous but uncanny deepfakes, for free.

Though most digital reproductions have revolved around people in the public eye, there are implications for even the least famous of us.

Just about everyone these days has an online identity, one that will live on long after death.

Determining what to do with those digital selves may be one of the great ethical and technological imperatives of our time.

WHOSE DATA IS THIS?

Ever since the internet subsumed communication, work and leisure, the amount of data humans create daily has risen steeply.

Every minute, people enter more than 3.8 million Google search queries, send more than 188 million emails and swipe through Tinder more than 1.4 million times, all while being tracked by various forms of digital surveillance.

We produce so much data that some philosophers now believe personhood is no longer an equation of body and mind; it must also take into account the digital being.

When we die, we leave behind informational corpses, composed of emails, text messages, social media profiles, search queries and online shopping behaviour.

Carl Ohman, a digital ethicist, said this represents a huge sociological shift; for centuries, only the rich and famous were thoroughly documented.

In one study, Mr Ohman calculated that — assuming its continued existence — Facebook could have 4.9 billion deceased users by the century’s end.

That figure presents challenges at both the personal and the societal level, Mr Ohman said: “It’s not just about, ‘What do I do with my deceased father’s Facebook profile?’ It’s rather a matter of ‘What do we do with the Facebook profiles of the past generation?’”

The aggregate data of the dead on social media represents an archive of significant humanitarian value — a primary historical resource the likes of which no other generation has left behind. Mr Ohman believes it must be treated as such.

He has argued in favour of designating digital remains with a status similar to that of archaeological remains — or “some kind of digital World Heritage label,” he said — so that scholars and archivists can protect them from exploitation and digital decay.

Then, in the future, people can use them to learn about the big, cultural moments that played out online, like the Arab Spring and the #MeToo movement, and “zoom in to do qualitative readings of the individuals that took part in these movements,” Mr Ohman said.

Public social media profiles are one thing. Private exchanges, such as the email read in the Bourdain documentary, raise more complicated ethical questions.

“We don’t know that Bourdain would have consented to reading these emails on camera,” said Katie Shilton, a researcher focused on information technology ethics at the University of Maryland.

“We don’t know that he would have consented to having his voice manipulated.” She described the decision to have the text read aloud as “a violation of autonomy”.

As Jean-Paul Sartre once put it: “To be dead is to be a prey for the living.”

It’s a sentiment that philosophers are still mulling over today, and one that Patrick Stokes, author of Digital Souls, sees as directly related to digital remains.

As he sees it, creating a digital version of a deceased person requires taking qualities from the dead that are meaningful to the living — such as their conversations and entertainment value — and leaving the rest behind.

“We’ve crossed into replacing the dead,” said Associate Professor Stokes, a senior lecturer in philosophy at Deakin University.

“We’ve crossed into not simply finding a particularly vivid way to remember them, but instead, we found a way to plug the gap in existence they’ve left by dying.”

This is all happening in the midst of a pandemic that has radically altered the rites around death.

For many families, final goodbyes and funerals were virtual in 2020, if they happened at all.

When digital-afterlife technologies begin to enter mainstream use, they may help ease the process of bereavement, as well as foster connections between generations past and present and encourage the living to discuss death more openly with each other.

But before then, Assoc Prof Stokes said, there are important questions to consider: “If I do start interacting with these things, what does that say about my relationship to that person I loved? Am I actually doing the things that love requires by interacting with this new reanimation of them? Am I protecting the dead? Or am I exploiting them?”

“We have a rare chance to actually be ethically ready for new technology before it gets here,” Assoc Prof Stokes said. Or, at least, before it goes any further. 

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Adrienne Matei is a Vancouver-based writer and editor.

Related topics

data digital Artificial Intelligence Technology identity ethics

Read more of the latest in

Advertisement

Popular

Advertisement

Stay in the know. Anytime. Anywhere.

Subscribe to get daily news updates, insights and must reads delivered straight to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, I agree for my personal data to be used to send me TODAY newsletters, promotional offers and for research and analysis.