Whether it’s an old iPhone with an innocuous voicemail from a lost parent, the heartfelt outpouring on a Facebook tribute page or a stream of Instagram comments that stand to remind us of someone we’ve lost, technology has become more and more intertwined with grieving as a by-product of our lives moving further online. But what happens when it’s no longer just the by-product of your technology, but the primary focus?
It’s October 2020, and Robert Kardashian is making a speech to mark Kim Kardashian’s 40th birthday, 17 years after his death: “You married the most, most, most, most, most, genius man in the whole world – Kanye West.”
Tucked away on a private island, Robert Kardashian took a moment between reminiscing over car rides with his daughter, shared songs and his pride in her law degree, to remind Kim that this holographic reanimated father was as much a Kanye West production as The College Dropout or the Adidas YEEZY.
From a private island, the hologram went viral via Kim’s Twitter account. The response to the digital resurrection of Robert Kardashian – the celebrity lawyer who died in 2003 and had never met his own personal Yeezus – was one of both amazement and outrage.
While we may think virtual reunions with the deceased are the concerns of the mega-rich, soon we could all be partaking via our smartphones. But just because we could, does that mean we should?
Robert Kardashian’s hologram was put together by Kaleida, a hologram company who produce “digital resurrections”.
“After doing the Kardashian project, we’ve been inundated with requests from people to bring back loved ones,” says Daniel Reynolds, the company’s director and producer. “One person wanted to recreate a speech that her dad gave at her wedding.”
Despite the demand, a Kaleida hologram store on every street corner isn’t something Reynolds sees happening. “It’s still relatively expensive, making it inaccessible to a lot of people and we’re not necessarily a consumer-facing business,” he explains.
While Kaleida is catering to, shall we say, wealthier clients, there are in-roads being made on more readily available digital resurrections. Online genealogy platform, MyHeritage, has launched Deep Nostalgia: a tech tool allowing people to upload old photos and watch as their ancestors move their heads and smile at them using AI technology.
“Old photos are such an interesting gateway into family history,” says Rafi Mendelsohn, Director of PR and Social Media at MyHeritage. “I don’t think we expected it to be quite the explosion it was, or to have this emotional reaction.”
Deep Nostalgia has become a viral phenomenon, with over 55 million images uploaded in the first two weeks alone by museums, teachers, and TikTokers alike. “We’ve discovered a need that I don’t think anyone really realised,” explains Mendelsohn, “to see our loved ones or people we never had the chance to meet in the past, and have a greater appreciation of them.”
Deep Nostalgia’s success opens the door to things being taken a step further, including AI-led conversations with the departed. That’s right – you could one day be having a conversation with your dead nan. “The technology is already there for a posthumous text generator, and possibly a posthumous call generator,” explains Lilian Edwards, Professor of Law, Innovation and Society at Newcastle University.
Mendelsohn stresses this is not the next step for MyHeritage: “We specifically created the technology so you can’t add an audio element. We’re a genealogy company – we don’t know how people sounded. It’s not up to us to make up what that was.”
Yet other companies could be willing to cross that boundary, but the authenticity of those interactions are questionable. Would a real reunion with our Victorian ancestors be pleasant? Probably not. Pat Thane, Professor of Contemporary History at King’s College London and author of Divided Kingdom: A History of Britain, 1900 to the Present, admits our knowledge of what Victorians talked about is vague: “We have diaries and letters, but they are different from people chatting to one another in everyday life. I can’t imagine being able to realistically imagine what people would have said in the past.”
As for the pleasantry of a real reunion with our forefathers, this is no guarantee – conversations around human rights, women’s rights, sexuality, relationships and so on have advanced significantly since this time.
While history comes with its complications, the resurrection of the recently deceased via AI is another issue. “We’re in new territory,” says Dr. Elaine Kasket, psychologist and author of All the Ghosts in the Machine. “The spaces for the dead became gradually distant from the Industrial Revolution onwards, until we had rural cemeteries. Now, there’s this collapsing together of the dead and the living.
“Technology companies are the keepers of this information, with a one-size-fits-all memorialisation mechanism. They’ve got ideas about what’s good for you, and grief and bereavement are baked into the design.”
Despite this, Dr. Kasket believes that there is no right or wrong in using technology to grieve, and “grief-policing” is unhelpful. “Grief always will be an extraordinarily idiosyncratic phenomenon. You have these individual needs and requirements. But the online environment doesn’t respond in that fine-grain nature.”
The question of ethics also looms over all virtual reunions. The moral lines are blurred: “There are big ethical questions, and I’m not exactly sure of the answers,” says Kaleida’s Reynolds. “This can be used by bad actors to create negative outcomes and that needs to be considered. But if a family wants to recreate a memory of a loved one, I don’t see an issue with that.”
“The authority to speak for the dead and reanimating them according to a script of your choosing, then springing it upon somebody’s daughter is an extraordinary thing to do.” says Dr. Kasket. “But as long as it’s clear that it’s a simulation, that it can’t be used for nefarious purposes, and people are able to give informed consent – rather than it being imposed on them at birthday parties or through their emails – then you’re broadly speaking in ethical territory.”
As for the law on who can be brought back over the digital divide, Professor Lilian Edwards lays out how little help we have. “Your privacy dies with you,” says Edwards. “It hits so many sore buttons and yet the law doesn’t cover it. Right now, it’s privacy by obscurity. What’s interesting about MyHeritage is that it involves people who aren’t famous, which we haven’t seen before.”
“There’s a looming crisis with deepfakery.” says Dr. Kasket “It can take families a long time to close down the digital portion of an estate. Dates and other information around a person’s death are available at a going rate on the dark web, and there’s a reason for that. You could potentially impersonate the deceased if you have audio and video, and some banks use voice recognition to clear transactions.”
Without regulation, experts like Dr. Kasket are warning of sleepwalking into a world of unauthorised deep-fakes zombies, posthumously taking over accounts and online identities for nefarious or commercial purposes. Not ideal for grieving relatives to be faced with a dead relative offering them life insurance, for example.
Digital resurrection has become a hot topic for solicitors, and even Kaleida’s Daniel Reynolds has thought about his own: “I wouldn’t want my family using video and bringing me back. I would put it in my will: you’re not allowed to do this.”
While we wait to see whether these recent viral hits mean a resurgence in grief as a product, Kanye West’s “most genius” move may have been bringing the conversation around digital resurrections out in the open, prompting many to ask the question, “would I really want to be brought back from the dead?” We’re not so sure.