Turns out every day’s a school day. This morning I discovered there is a type of jellyfish that can live forever, namely the turritopsis dohrnii, a.k.a, the Immortal Jellyfish - the only known creature that can reverse its own lifecycle and go on living indefinitely.
But it’s not invertebrates that have me questioning my own mortality. Nor is it any sort of spiritual awakening. It’s the endless possibilities of AI and the big question - could technology provide the answer to immortality, offering us life after death? - that is currently causing my existential crisis.
Scarily, the answer to the big question is yes - or at least, sort of. Digital eternal life is obviously not the same as actual immortality, but the technology to get pretty darned close to the real thing already exists. What’s even more chilling is that the first person to experience digital immortality has most likely already been born.
You and I are gonna live forever
OK - Noel Gallagher probably didn’t have artificial intelligence in mind when he wrote Live Forever. Yet, the answer to remaining a presence in our loved ones’ lives after we die could lie in our current digital footprint. Our social media posts, Instagram photos, videos, voice recordings, etc. etc., may all be collated to form an AI anthropomorphic cyborg version of ourselves, emulating our nuances, turn of phrase, facial expressions, etc. Possibly even our actual thoughts too.
This is no longer the realm of fantasy or science fiction. This is a very real prospect that, according to a number of sources, could happen as soon as 2045.
In fact, it’s already happening. A variety of researchers and entrepreneurs are developing programmes and projects such as:
Eternime: AI platform that collects your digital footprint and creates a virtual avatar that can interact with your loved ones after your death.
Replika: AI chatbot that learns from your conversations and creates a digital companion that resembles you.
HereAfter: AI app that records your life stories and creates a voice clone that can answer questions about your life.
Project Revoice: AI initiative that restores the voice of people with MND (motor neurone disease) using voice cloning technology.
Prime Voice AI: Software that uses AI to create realistic text-to-speech and voice cloning for various purposes, such as storytelling, news, audiobooks and language translation.
I had a tinker with some of these tools and it’s scary how good they are (even the free versions). Using Prime Voice AI via ElevenLabs, I was able to clone my voice effectively, just from uploading a few minutes of me rabbiting on into a microphone, then applying that vocal recording to some written copy (check out the results below!).
Voice cloning sounds nefarious but has proved invaluable in restoring speech abilities for people who have lost their voice due to illness or injury (Rob Burrows being one example). It may also help preserve your voice for loved ones after you’ve gone.
The ethical dilemma
Those leading this tech innovation might argue that audio and visual cloning will preserve our legacy and identity by creating digital copies or extensions of ourselves, enabling us to continue to exist and communicate after our physical death.
However, the ethical questions around the consequences of creating and using these digital clones can’t be ignored, such as:
Who actually owns our digital footprint after we’ve died?
How do we control how our data is used in the future?
Will we one day need to include information in our will about our digital immortality?
And of course:
Just because we can, does that mean we should?
Let’s take a scenario. The year is 2060, and a filmmaker dreams of creating a Hollywood blockbuster with one of the most iconic actors ever - Tom Hanks. However, the narrative calls for a 30 year old Hanks, but the real-life actor has, unfortunately, passed away long ago.
The solution? Simply use the next best thing - an AI-powered, 30 year old digital Tom Hanks.
The man himself (who is thankfully very much still with us in the flesh) is all too aware of this mind-blowing concept, as addressed in a recent podcast:
“I can tell you that there [are] discussions going on in all of the guilds, all of the agencies, and all of the legal firms in order to come up with the legal ramifications of my face and my voice and everybody else’s being our intellectual property.”
And it’s already happening. I’m not talking about hologram performances a la Abba, Michael Jackson and Tupac. We’ve already seen an incredibly lifelike ‘Bruce Willis’ appearing in a russian commercial for mobile phone carrier MegaFon and numerous deep fake videos involving the likes of Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman.
The late Robin Williams appeared to foresee the imminent challenges of AI, taking legal measures to fiercely safeguard his image from being posthumously used in media productions. It’s highly likely many other celebrity figures are already doing the same.
Should us less high profile mortals also be worried? And what exactly are the ethical implications of digital immortality?
Access and equity
Like all cutting-edge tech, there's a chance that only the rich and privileged will get to use mind uploading and digital immortality. Currently, the cost of creating a 3D representation of a person will cost approximately $10,000, while an hour-long ‘meeting’ with a deceased loved one will likely set you back $1000.
This begs the question who will be able to afford this technology and who will be left out?
Privacy and security
How will our digital selves' personal data be kept safe from unauthorised access or misuse? Who will have the rights to control the data and the platforms where our post-physical selves exist? Will we in future have to obtain some sort of legal written permission for our data to be used or not used?
Bias and control
Will the tech behind digital immortality just mirror the biases and prejudices that already exist in society? And what about the potential for exploitation or manipulation? Balancing the need for individual autonomy with the potential risks associated with misuse could become one of the most challenging dilemmas facing the future of digital immortality.
Who wants to live forever?
The likes of Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak and co are right to be concerned about where AI is headed. As we dive ever deeper into the unchartered waters of artificial intelligence, ethical questions remain. While it's amazing to think that, like our old friend the Immortal Jellyfish, we could someday live on indefinitely, we have to be mindful that we're not just dealing with cool tech, we're also redefining the very idea of what it means to be human.
In creating digital versions of ourselves, we need to remember the importance of fairness and privacy. It's not just about who gets access to these technologies, but also how they're used and by whom. After all, it's one thing to sound like us or look like us; it's another to truly represent who we are and only we as individuals know how best to do that. Without clear legislation, what’s to stop others from manipulating or altering our digital selves once we’re gone?
When I think about where we are with AI now, the famous quote from Ferris Bueller often springs to mind:
“Life moves pretty fast. Look around once in a while or you could miss it”.
Life does indeed move fast, but right now it feels like AI is moving faster. Yes, digital immortality is an intriguing concept but unless the brakes are put on AI innovation soon, we may find we have less and less control over what happens to our digital selves from beyond the grave. And for me, that’s a chilling concept.