After You Die, Your Digital Self Could Live on as a Chatbot

An online memorial concept.

(© Catalin Pop/Fotolia)


My wife and I visited a will-and-trust lawyer after our first son was born. Everything seemed simple and clear until the lawyer asked, without missing a beat, "So, what about your social media management?" My wife looked at me and, even though I'm more tech savvy, I felt as confused as a Luddite.

One can imagine chatbots becoming the next generation of care management alongside funeral services, and will and testaments.

"Social media management?" I laughed, making a joke about my wife spending more time on Facebook than I do. But the lawyer's question was serious, as were the legal documents asking for our profile page links, passwords, and related information.

What do you want to happen to your Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms after you die? Your grandfather may have wanted his cremated ashes poured into the Ganges, or a burial in a prepaid plot. But unlike earlier generations, whose personas ended with their last breath, your bits and bytes could live on across multiple servers, holding a space for you online like a digital obelisk. Or, if you desire, your relatives can do the equivalent of a DNR: Delete account.

"It is the future of 'Get your affairs in order,'" says John Havens, Executive Director of the IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems. He remembers being pulled aside when his father was being put into the ICU and realizing that his dad wasn't going to come back.

Havens says if we are lucky enough to know that we are wrapping up our time, then we have the opportunity not just to bow out of the digital world gracefully, but to have our digital persona carry on beyond us. This persona could go beyond today's static memorial pages on Facebook and Instagram; it could be an interactive computer program designed from your specific speech patterns, memories, and personality – a chatbot.

"I could have an algorithm trained to hear what I say and how I say it," Havens told me. "You can say, 'I'm Damon and I'm going to pass in the next few months, but, you know, over the past six months, I've created a chatbot to continue our conversations. In the upcoming months, my partner or loved ones will let you know when the chatbot will take over and be involved.'"

The chatbot could become an extension of you on platforms like Messenger or WhatsApp, for example. One can imagine this becoming the next generation of care management alongside funeral services, and will and testaments. You can see the future in Eugenia Kuyda, an entrepreneur who successfully created an interactive chatbot of her late friend, Roman Mazurenko, just based on his text messages. Her new program, Replika, may eventually give us the same technology so we, too, can all potentially do the same with our loved ones. Expect other tech companies to follow suit.

There is now no real separation between IRL and online – just as there may be an increasingly blurred line between our personas before and after death.

Chatbots offer us an irresistible decision: They are artificial intelligence programs built to have conversations with people, usually within a service capacity like canceling a shipping order or getting to the right help desk. You can view it as a modern-day helpline and, no doubt, you've interacted with chatbots when you've made purchases online. Chatbots are now becoming verbal, too, managing phone calls you make to your credit card company, local utilities, and other daily operations.

We witnessed our future this spring when Google showed off Google Duplex. It is a voice-driven system that will call people on your behalf with the intention, Google says, to manage your life. At the Google I/O conference, Google CEO Sundar Pichai showed Duplex calling a hair salon and interacting with the human receptionist – with nearly all the pauses, mmm-hmms, and colloquialisms as its female counterpart. "The amazing part is the assistant can actually understand the nuances of conversation," Pichai said to the rapt tech audience.

Recode's Kurt Wagner explained the immediate problem with the Google Duplex demo, which is the same problem technologists so often overlook: What if someone uses your technology in ways you didn't intend? "The major concern with that demo was that Google Assistant never said it was a robot or told the salon that the call was being recorded. When pressed by members of the media in the days after the demo, Google declined to comment, leading some to believe the company had simply overlooked this privacy element altogether."

"This is why disclosure will be so huge," Havens says. "When people call, they will begin with, 'Hello. I am a human.'"

This conflict between the physical and the digital is now coming to a head, though it isn't the clichéd man against machine Skynet conspiracy theories, but rather us against us. Today, it is as if we are split into two or, perhaps more accurately, two personas – our "real-life" persona and our online persona – and we're now experiencing fatigue trying to hold center.

It is a new phenomenon reflective of our social media: Media forerunners like MySpace and Friendster as well as classic websites like LiveJournal and Tumblr allowed us to explore the online world – and, in a sense, the physical world beyond our physical reach – using avatars as close to or as far from our real selves as we desired. On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog.

Facebook truly eliminated the powerful choice of anonymity, as its extensive verification process required people to give up anonymity to participate in the biggest social network in the world. This was a willful, purposeful decision by Facebook: Founder Mark Zuckerberg has been an advocate of being yourself online, and the former Director of Market Development Randi Zuckerberg infamously said, "I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away… People behave a lot better when they have their real names down."

This was Facebook's intention and, whether or not its theory of people behaving better is true, especially in light of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, the effects on us are real. Sex workers and other high-risk, anonymity-driven entrepreneurs are being outed via social media. The parallel rise in online addiction clinics isn't a coincidence, as the blur between the physical self and the digital self has never been hazier. There is now no real separation between IRL and online – just as there may be an increasingly blurred line between our personas before and after death.

Chatbots represent a tempting form of convenience: A way to remove our cognitive load to an assistant that will manage our relationships.

We have Carrie Fisher starring in the next Star Wars movie, potentially winning the first truly post-humous Oscar thanks to technology that can help transition older footage into live-recorded footage. Similar, more subtle turns occurred with Paul Walker in the Fast and the Furious 7, which used a combination of CGI and stand-ins. But a key difference is that we actually know they are dead before the movie is even released. As not-famous individuals, we have the ethical choice (duty?) to disclose that information to our social media followers after we die.

While we're still alive, though, chatbots represent a tempting form of convenience: A way to remove our cognitive load to an assistant that will manage our relationships. The rub is that our online relationships are our personal relationships, so we're not just potentially automating, say, our social media feed or our online postings, but our responsibilities in the real-life relationships that we've built. There is no line.

"It's naïve to think that the Google Duplex that was designed to make your hair appointments won't be used to do more difficult things like break up with a girlfriend," Havens says. "Record 50 words, use different inflections, and put in phrases like 'It's not you, it's me.' Why wouldn't people do that?"

Well, it really depends on the person. My wife and I ended up leaving the social media management section of our will blank for now. I even took a long social media sabbatical to connect with people more in person. If my online relationships and my in-person relationships are all becoming the same, then maybe it's OK to let them die – just like I will.

Damon Brown
Damon Brown co-founded the popular platonic connection app Cuddlr. Now he helps side hustlers, solopreneurs, and other non-traditional entrepreneurs bloom. He is author of the TED book "Our Virtual Shadow" and, most recently, the best-selling "The Bite-Sized Entrepreneur" series. Join his creative community at www.JoinDamon.me.
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