Déjà vu: Now you really CAN take it with you!

Chatbots that resurrect the dead: legal experts weigh in on ‘disturbing’ technology

Alan Turing ran into something besides winning WWII for England. The Turing test named after his proposition artificial intelligence would be measured by whether a machine could pass…as ‘human’ to a real human. We have arrived.

Our network of snitches (we are now prisoners of our own devices) order pizzas on our behalf without the pizza delivery guys even knowing. (Who will soon be replaced themselves in any event.) Computers have long since trounced the world’s best chess grandmasters making modern tournaments battles between automatons. The Japanese are leading the way to companion robots for the elderly and lonely. The Chinese have developed deep fake algorithms capable of animating a convincing visual and audio likeness sufficiently and persuasively deceptive enough to cause alarm.

Many phone con artists now use the most current scam bots to greatly amplify their reach and gull the unwary. The problem is the point of inflection leading to the Turing test grilling of the android in the opening scene of Bladerunner (original) is nigh upon us. If the machines are not yet more human than we, they ARE becoming more convincing in their deceptions. Moreover, the same technology is currently being used as a substitute for a judge’s insight in sentencing criminal defendants. Hal (the robot overseeing all life support systems in the 2001 spaceship) refused to admit Dave back inside the ship after killing his shipmates..

“Hal! Open the airlock door. Hal!!”

I’m sorryDaveI’m afraid I can’t do that. …”

Dave Bowman : “I don’t know what you‘re talking about, HAL.”

HAL : “I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen.”

Segue, decades later, to one of the 2 737max jet airliners with hundreds of doomed passenger on board as experienced pilots unsuccessfully wrestled with the aircraft’s computer for control of the craft.

I smell $! I want to invest in the company (Microsoft already has a foot solidly wedged in the doorway of this ‘disturbing’ technology) planning on capitalizing on our innate desire to communicate with our departed dearest friends, lovers, and family–perhaps even our enemies who have satisfyingly preceded us. It’s, like money, going to be a hit. Who can resist?

There is going to be a huge industry dwarfing video games and social media. Not only will we be drawn to the departed, but will feel compelled to immortalize ourselves while we are able by becoming more prolific–posting every video, snapshot, utterance, idle thought, and amateur performance online to build the database that will become, eternally and with perfect simulation, US–forever! We already recognize the immortality of history’s giants (Lincoln, Homer, Will Rogers, Mark Twain, Melville, Voltaire, Van Gogh, Puccini) through their works. This will democratize the process of immortality, making 15 minutes of fame truly available to everyone, even the dead.

It was recently revealed that in 2017 Microsoft patented a chatbot that, if built, would digitally resurrect the dead. Using AI and machine learning, the proposed chatbot would bring our digital persona back to life for our family and friends to talk to. When pressed on the technology, Microsoft representatives admitted that the chatbot was “disturbing” and that there were currently no plans to put it into production.

Still, it appears that the technical tools and personal data are in place to make digital reincarnations possible. AI chatbots have already passed the “Turing Test”, which means they’ve fooled other humans into thinking they’re human, too. Meanwhile, most people in the modern world now leave behind enough data to teach AI programs about our conversational idiosyncrasies. Convincing digital doubles may be just around the corner.

But there are currently no laws governing digital reincarnation. Your right to data privacy after your death is far from set in stone, and there is currently no way for you to opt-out of being digitally resurrected. This legal ambiguity leaves room for private companies to make chatbots out of your data after you’re dead.

Our research has looked at the surprisingly complex legal question of what happens to your data after you die. At present, and in the absence of specific legislation, it’s unclear.

Be Right Back, an episode of the Black Mirror TV series featured a woman addicted to a chatbot representation of her dead partner.

Microsoft’s chatbot would use your electronic messages to create a digital reincarnation in your likeness after you pass away. Such a chatbot would use machine learning to respond to text messages just as you would have when you were alive. If you happen to leave behind rich voice data, that too could be used to create your vocal likeness – someone your relatives could speak with, through a phone or a humanoid robot.

Microsoft isn’t the only company to have shown an interest in digital resurrection. The AI company Eternime has built an AI-enabled chatbot that harvests information – including geolocation, motion, activity, photos, and Facebook data – which lets users create an avatar of themselves to live on after they die. It may be only a matter of time until families have the choice to reanimate dead relatives using AI technologies such as Eternime’s.

If chatbots and holograms from beyond the grave are set to become commonplace, we’ll need to draw up new laws to govern them. After all, it looks like a violation of the right to privacy to digitally resurrect someone whose body lies beneath a tombstone reading “rest in peace”.

Bodies in binary

National laws are inconsistent on how your data is used after your death. In the EU, the law on data privacy only protects the rights of the living. That leaves room for member states to decide how to protect the data of the dead. Some, such as Estonia, France, Italy, and Latvia, have legislated on postmortem data. The UK’s data protection laws have not.

To further complicate matters, our data is mostly controlled by private online platforms such as Facebook and Google. This control is based on the terms of service that we sign up to when we create profiles on these platforms. Those terms fiercely protect the privacy of the dead.

For example, in 2005, Yahoo! refused to provide email account login details for the surviving family of a US marine killed in Iraq. The company argued that their terms of service were designed to protect the marine’s privacy. A judge eventually ordered the company to provide the family with a CD containing copies of the emails, setting a legal precedent in the process.

A few initiatives, such as Google’s Inactive Account Manager and Facebook’s Legacy Contact, have attempted to address the postmortem data issue. They allow living users to make some decisions on what happens to their data assets after they die, helping to avoid ugly court battles over dead people’s data in the future. But these measures are no substitute for laws.

One route to better postmortem data legislation is to follow the example of organ donation. The UK’s “opt-out” organ donation law is particularly relevant, as it treats the organs of the dead as donated unless that person specified otherwise when they were alive. The same opt-out scheme could be applied to postmortem data.

This model could help us respect the privacy of the dead and the wishes of their heirs, all while considering the benefits that could arise from donated data: that data donors could help save lives just as organ donors do.

In the future, private companies may offer family members an agonizing choice: abandon your loved one to death, or instead pay to have them digitally revived. Microsoft’s chatbot may at present be too disturbing to countenance, but it’s an example of what’s to come. It’s time we wrote the laws to govern this technology.

This article by Edina Harbinja, Senior Lecturer in Media/Privacy Law, Aston UniversityLilian Edwards, Professor of Law, Innovation & Society, Newcastle Law School, Newcastle University, and Marisa McVey, Research fellow, Aston University, is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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