For millennia, the technology of mummification was the single most effective tool with power enough to convey the idea of immortality. Back in the Ancient days and until not very long, from Amenhotep the Great to Vladimir Lenin, the corpses of dead leaders were subjected to elaborate chemical processes designed to preserve them as much as possible from rot and decay.
From those techniques invented in North Africa to the sophisticated sound and visual technologies first developed in 19th century Europe, there is a long history of technological processes and devices able to make death a not-so-definitive event.
Yet in the past few years, via CGI technologies, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence, it looks like we are in the midst of a great technological leap regarding our capacity to keep the dead alive – or at least their image, their voices, and the way they reason and chat.
In a recent article, the American magazine Analytics Insight -which focuses on Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, and Analytics- has hinted at the possibility that, with the recent passing of Queen Elizabeth II, we could be about to enter a new chapter in the history of these death-defying technologies – one that no doubt could arise not only excitement but also crucial political and ethical challenges.Collective Mourning, Artificial Intelligence, and Digital Reincarnation
Born in 1926, Elizabeth II has been a central figure in the cultural and political history of the 20th and 21st centuries, with a life spanning over decades of major events for her country and the rest of the world, including the 2nd World War, the creation of the European Economic Community (later European Union), independence movements in British colonies, wars in the South Atlantic and in the Middle East, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the shocking death of her daughter-in-law Princess Diana, Brexit, and many more.
And even though her country, in the past few decades, had produced major global cultural icons such as The Beatles, James Bond, or the most famous fictional pig in the whole world, Peppa, Elizabeth is still perhaps the figure that more profoundly represents Britishness for the rest of the world.
Taking all of this into account, we may begin to understand the void that the Queen has left behind with her passing, and how the mourning of such a crucial figure can develop into an effort to maintain it alive through the technological tools available. In the times we are living in, this means mainly digital technologies.
For a few years now, we have been witnessing major events in this area that include digital reincarnations of celebrities such as Carrie Fisher or Anthony Bourdain, or the AI-powered recreation of Val Kilmer’s lost voice that we recently examined in this article.
Using vast datasets that include text and/or voice recordings, artificial intelligence can create algorithms that can be trained to develop chatbots that are able to mimic a certain person’s responses or reproduce the expressiveness with which someone speaks (or spoke). Also, as we have seen with the use of CGI by Disney to introduce a young Princess Leia in the ending of the Rogue One movie, visual technologies that can recreate a person’s image, movements, and gestures are evolving rapidly.
AI specialists are foreseeing that these technologies combined are coming closer every day to develop extraordinarily accurate recreations of people that are no longer alive. The consequences for our society could be huge, ranging from our family relationships to the political landscape.
Yet, we must remain vigilant of the moral and political issues raised by these types of technologies. From the point of view of the individuals that may be digitally revived, we will need to find mechanisms to let each person decide whether or not they want to be brought back to life in a digital form. Also, and especially in the context of increasingly polarized societies, the potential threat of these technologies being used to create deep fakes and manipulate public opinion must also be addressed.
Technologies of Digital Immortality: Addressing the Challenge Today
Since the dawn of time, technology has always been both the most effective existing tool to aid our instinct to preserve life and surpass the limits imposed by our frail physical existence, and at the same time an instrument for violence and destruction.
An eventual digital reincarnation of Queen Elizabeth could only be the first step into a future with unknown outcomes for our personal and political lives. The use we give to these powerful technologies of digital immortality will be entirely up to us.
In any case, the shocking ability of artificial intelligence to create accurate representations of how a person looks, talks, moves, and thinks is likely to produce extraordinary changes in our global society in years to come.
To learn more about the latest tech trends, keep reading our blog!