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Digital afterlife industry should be regulated

May 8th, 2018 | by Christopher Little
Digital afterlife industry should be regulated
Science
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A successful business model is all about supply and demand. So it’s no wonder that the business of death is one of the most prosperous industries in the world; it’s a market that that not only replenishes itself but – with rising populations – also seems to be growing exponentially. Modern technology, however, is opening up new opportunities.

A burgeoning digital afterlife industry is developing, offering everything from live-streamed funerals to online memorial pages and even chat-bots that imitate us when we’re gone. But a new study by the Oxford Internet Institute has raised questions over how our digital selves are used for commercial gain.

We are increasingly spending our lives in the digital world. Recent events such as the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal has made us more aware of the volumes of personal data that we willing offer to the Internet. But few of us fully comprehend the true scale of our imprint in the digital realm.

Long after our physical selves depart this material existence, our imprint will remain in the digital world

Everything we do on the Internet is logged: every email we send, every website we visit, every search we make, every file we download, and – of course – every social media post we make. It is all recorded and held on some kind of server or cloud storage somewhere.

This Internet activity is commonly known as our digital remains. And long after our physical selves depart this material existence, our imprint will remain in the digital world.

Eternime aims to combine your social media footprint with AI to create a digital version of you that your friends and family can communicate with long after you’re gone

Facebook is a striking example. Whilst it currently has over 1 billion users worldwide, around 10,000 of those users die every day. It’s estimated that before the end of the century Facebook will have more dead users than living (that’s presuming it will still be around then). But what happens to all the profiles of the deceased? Though they can be cancelled down, most are now memorialised to provide friends and family with a place to visit and share memories.

A number of experimental start-ups are also looking at ways to monetise our digital remains. There’s the With Me app designed by South Korean company Elrois, which allows you to take selfies with avatars of your deceased loved ones.

Then there’s startup Eternime, founded by MIT fellow Marius Ursache, which aims to combine your social media footprint with AI to create a digital version of you that your friends and family can communicate with long after you’re gone.

This kind of ‘re-creation service’ was popularised in an episode (Be Right Back) of the science fiction anthology series Black Mirror, but a basic version of this kind of chatbot is relatively easy to create. When tech entrepreneur Eugenia Kuyda’s friend Roman Mazurenko died, she turned to the personal AI app Replika.

This app is designed to create a digital representation of yourself, but by uploading her friends text messages Kuyda was able to create a digital version of him – a neural network powered chatbot – she could continue having conversations with.

Our digital remains can offer a source of comfort to friends and family, but there are concerns that grief could be exploited. The prospect that this content could be manipulated for commercial gain led the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) to suggest that an ethical framework should be established to regulate the digital afterlife industry.

The study, published in Nature, was conducted by Professor Luciano Floridi, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information and Director of the Digital Ethics Lab, and Carl Öhman, a postdoctoral researcher at OII.

Digital remains should be regarded with the same human dignity and inherent value as physical remains

It identified four sectors in the digital afterlife industry which it recommended should be regulated by this framework. They include information management services, posthumous messaging services, online memorial services and re-creation services.

The paper suggests that regulation should emulate the frameworks used in museums and commercial use of organic human remains.

Carl Öhman said: “Much like digital remains, archaeological and medical exhibit objects such as bones and organic body parts, are both displayed for the living to consume and difficult to allocate to a specific owner.  As exhibits have become increasingly digitalised and made available online, the ethical concerns of the field appear to be increasingly merging with those of the digital afterlife industry.”

Drawing on the International Council of Museums (ICOM) Code of Professional Ethics, they propose that digital remains be regarded with the same human dignity and inherent value as physical remains. As such, digital remains should not be solely used for commercial gains.

Professor Floridi said: “In developing a constructive ethical approach for the use of digital remains the first step is to decide to what extent, and under what circumstances, our memory of the deceased is driven and shaped by the commercial interests of the industry. The second and equally important step will be to develop a regulatory framework, commonly adopted, to ensure dignity for those who are remediated and remembered online.”

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