How virtual reality will bring our loved ones back from the dead

  • Published in Mysteries
  • Read: 288

YOU wake up, get ready for work, have some toast and coffee with your spouse, then wave goodbye. It’s
your typical workday. There is, however, something unusual: your beloved has been dead for many years.
You didn’t have breakfast with your spouse -- but rather with a simulation of your spouse.

The simulation lives in a virtual environment, perhaps accessed by a device such as the Oculus
Rift. A digital bereavement company has captured and analyzed torrents of data about your husband to
create a digital likeness. His voice, his gait, his idiosyncrasies and mannerisms, the undulations of
his laugh -- all are replicated with near-perfect similitude. Spending time with your digitally reborn
spouse has become a part of your daily routine.

Death is often viewed as the great leveller that marks the cessation of experience. But
perhaps, this needn’t be the case. Even if the dead can’t interact with us anymore, we can still
interact with a simulation of them. It was the death of my father that inspired me to embark on a
project to make this fantasy a reality.

Two hundred years ago, most people didn’t have access to a picture of their dearly departed,
and a few decades ago, the same could be said for any film of a person. Yet, soon, simulations could
be able to accurately imitate those who have died so that we can continue to interact with them as if
they continued to live. As emerging technologies conspire to make simulations of the dead a part of
our lives, this possibility is no longer the realm of science fiction.
With smartphones, the quantified-self movement and massive online data collection, one can get
a passably accurate view of how a person behaves. This type of data collection would be the basis of
creating simulations of the deceased. Humans have a natural tendency to ascribe agency -- indeed
personality -- to animate objects, so creating a convincing simulation might not be as hard as it
first seems. Consider Eliza, a computer program with a few lines of code created in the 1960s which
could convince people that they were talking to a psychotherapist. And bots have been getting more
sophisticated still ever since.

One immediate objection is that a simulation is never going to be as rich as the real thing.
But this is akin to saying that a chess program is not going to be able to play chess in the same
artful manner that a human champion does. While IBM’s Deep Blue had an exhaustive search-based chess-
playing architecture that was less than elegant, it did accomplish the task of defeating the greatest
chess grandmaster who ever lived.
If our hypothetical simulation can pass the deceased person’s version of the Turing test, then
we have accomplished the task of having experiences of the dead. Don’t get hung up on ascribing
intelligence or consciousness to the software. If the only goal is to have the experience of
interacting with a person who is now deceased, then the metaphysics of personal identity is
irrelevant. Will such a system have a soul? Will it be conscious? At best, these question are
irrelevant and, at worst, they distract us from actually attempting to build simulations. My project
focuses on making experiences of a deceased person possible -- but not necessarily experiences with
the deceased.

Simulations can be thought of as the next step in the evolution of bereavement. Whether it is
by writing eulogies, building memorials, creating tombs or simply keeping a photograph on the
nightstand, cultures have different ways of remembering and mourning -- but they always do remember
and mourn. One of the great appeals of religion is the promise of reunion with the departed in one
form or another. Simulations hold the possibility that the living are no longer permanently cut off
from the dead.

These simulations will also change how we relate to the living. Imagine if you didn’t have to
say goodbye forever to anyone (that is, until you yourself die). A friend’s death would be met with
bereavement and deep sadness, of course. But at any moment in the future, you would still be able to
spend time laughing and reminiscing with a simulation so similar to your friend that it would be
difficult to tell the two apart.

At the same time, a world where you can interact freely with idealized simulations of other
people could have a deleterious effect on real-world relationships. Why interact with your petulant
uncle in real life when you can interact with an idealized, and much more fun, version of him in the
digital world? After all, bots can be muted and their bothersome traits simply deleted. Why bother
with the living if the dead can provide comfort and personality tailored to our whims?
New and unexpected patterns of behavior might also emerge. Perhaps, simulations will allow
people to hold grudges even after a person has died, continuing to combat a bot that is only ever a
click away. Alternatively, one might wait for the other’s demise and let go of grudges later on so
that they can deal with a more pleasant version of that person. The only difference is that it will
not be a person that they are interacting with but rather a simulacra.
If we don’t start a discussion about the possibility and viability of simulations of the
deceased now, then they will be thrust upon us when we’re not ready for them in the near future. The
road will be fraught with moral dilemmas and questions about the human condition. Soon, the line that
divides the living from the dead might not be so clear.
Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
Big Think