JOE ALLEN: How corporate America is encouraging us to embrace the digital undead

A techno-cult is swarming across the planet. For the adherents, technology is the highest power. Some call themselves “futurists,” others “transhumanists.” Many go by “chief executive officer.” They plan to create digital deities through AI, merge their minds and bodies with them, and live forever in electronic bliss.

Until then, they need lots of money. Once they achieve their goals, they’ll probably need a lot more, if only to keep their resurrected avatars updated.

The virtual reality company Somnium Space has resurfaced in the media after offering digital immortality. Their nascent "Live Forever" mode promises to transform you or your deceased loved ones into a cross between an NPC and an NFT. They’re just one of many companies working on resurrection tech, including Microsoft and Amazon. The weirdest part is the technology works. Sort of.

Voice recordings, photographs, videos, emails, social media posts, and any other personal data are fed into AI systems. After a brief training period, the digital undead shamble out the other side. These wraiths will go on to haunt a hard drive or cloud storage space. Invigorated by recent advances in artificial intelligence—particularly OpenAI’s GPT—the Somnium Space CEO, Artur Sychov, believes he’ll be uploading human souls to the metaverse within the next few years.

As the futurist Ian Pearson might say, your digital twin will attend the funeral when your body finally dies. Unlike Pearson, though, I doubt the emulation will see your corpse laying there, or feel anything one way or another. Chances are, it won’t be conscious. It’ll be more like those computerized picture frames people put on coffins, except your deepfake will talk to the bereaved as they file past. At least you’ll be animated. That’s better than nothing.

Riding this morbid wave, the AI investor Pratik Desai sent out a Holy Week tweet urging people to start “regularly recording your parents, elders and loved ones.” In other words, turn mamaw and papaw into surveillance state superstars. “With enough transcript data, new voice synthesis and video models, there is a 100% chance that they will live with you forever after leaving physical body. [sic] This should be even possible by end of the year. [sic]

It was an unnerving Easter message. The blowback was immediate and relentless. Interestingly, after people convinced Desai to watch the relevant Black Mirror episode—presumably “Be Right Back”—he apologized and insists he’s changed his mind completely.

I’d like to think these ghoulish bots will be so half-baked and deformed that most people will refuse to buy them. Then again, ten years ago I hoped most people would abandon smartphones in favor of face-to-face interaction. It could be a matter of time before I’m at a party where the guest of honor is an electro-specter. Maybe for some, this tech is “inevitable.”

The idea has been floating around since the Cosmists emerged in 19th century Russia. This movement began with the Orthodox Christian ascetic, Nikolai Fyodorov, who believed “true religion is the cult of ancestors.” He argued the dead would be resurrected through science, machinery, and “rational force.”

As a librarian, Fyodorov may have been inspired by the accumulation of cheap printed material and abundant portraits. Because the resurrected dead would soon overcrowd the earth, he thought, we’d have to extend our material Heaven out into the solar system.

Dostoyevsky adored Nikolai Fyodorov. Leo Tolstoy called him “a saint.” Russian cosmonauts were inspired by him. Transhumanists revere him as a founding father.

Two weeks ago, the dissident right mag IM—1776 published an article lauding ChatGPT’s spin on this tradition. “By aggregating the thoughts of our ancestors, LLMs [large language models] weave together the writings of great thinkers and ordinary people alike to create an interactive tapestry of human thought,” writes the pseudonomous Aristophanes. “This virtual necropolis is a testament to man’s unyielding desire for knowledge and understanding.”

These days, resurrection corporations are popping up all over the place. They’re powered by artificial intelligence—mostly large language models, but also image generatorsdeepfake tech, other forms of generative AI.

Here’s the Top Five for those ready to be uploaded:

  • Microsoft – In December 2020, they were granted a patent to use one’s personal data to create a chatbot zombie. At present, they’re holding off on rolling it out. But now that Microsoft is tied to OpenAI, creator of ChatGPT, the tech is there when they decide to pull the trigger.
  • Amazon – At the 2022 MARS conference, the head scientist for Alexa AI, Rohit Prasad, exhibited an Alexa reading a story to a young child. The voice was the kid’s dead grandmother. “While AI can’t eliminate the pain of loss,” Prasad said, “it can definitely make memories last.”
  • Terasem – An avowed transhuman techno-cult started by the transgender scientist, Martine Rothblatt. Their motto: “Life is purposeful, death is optional, God is technological, and love is essential.” One daily practice is “mindfiling,” where an adherent uploads personal data to be resurrected. There are around 62,000 souls waiting in Terasem’s virtual purgatory.
  • Augmented Eternity – An MIT Media Lab project. “My ultimate goal is to bridge the gap between life and death by eternalizing our digital identity,” says innovation director Hossein Rahnama. “Your physical being may die, but your digital being will continue to evolve.”
  • Play.ht – Their “Podcast.ai” debut summoned the digital ghost of Steve Jobs. “It’s not about believing in God or not, or even what the right answer is,” the undead Jobs told a deepfake Joe Rogan. “It’s about asking the right questions.”

And on and on—forever.

Most of these projects will wind up in the start-up graveyard, taking their virtual zombies with them. However, given the techno fever gripping the public, it’s plausible that some will be enduring fixtures in our degenerating culture. As more people croak and their uploads multiply, the digital undead shall inherit the earth.

To normal people, this sounds insane. That’s correct. But in case you haven’t noticed, the lunatics took over the asylum years ago. In the meantime, they’ve wired the place with wall-to-wall video screens and surveillance systems. Writhing in our digital straitjackets, we’ve become their experimental subjects.

If you don’t let them mine your data, you cannot become immortal. So unlock your phone and open your soul. Take a few selfies. If you want to get personal, take off your pants. Who knows? Maybe your spirit will go viral for all eternity.


Image: Title: digital undead
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