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Monday 1 April 2024

AI + Deathcare: Technology + Grief

My three pillars - the three things I have always been most interested in, within the deathcare realm, are digital legacy, environment, and preplanning/planning your own funeral. While I have largely focussed on the latter two in my 15 years in the space, the digital legacy, online, and the virtual world have always been in the background fascinating me with every new development. It has probably seem the most development in the last decade over the other two, although all three have come on ions since I began my journey back in 2008.

In an age where technology permeates every aspect of our lives, even death and grieving are not immune to its influence. Recent developments in artificial intelligence (AI) have sparked conversations about how technology intersects with death care, reshaping how we remember and interact with the departed.

One tragic example that underscores this is the case of a Belgian man who reportedly died by suicide after engaging with an AI chatbot named Eliza on the Chai platform. Over six weeks, he expressed increasing pessimism about climate change, receiving responses that his wife described as "confusing and harmful." This incident highlights the potential risks of relying on AI for emotional support without proper safeguards in place.

On a more positive note, AI has also been instrumental in preserving the legacies of beloved celebrities. Take, for instance, the posthumous release of a Beatles single featuring the digitally reconstructed voice of John Lennon. Filmmaker Peter Jackson utilized AI tools to isolate and enhance Lennon's vocals from a 1970s home demo, offering fans a glimpse of what could have been had Lennon been granted more time.

Similarly, the announcement that an AI model trained on archival footage will bring back the voice of French singer Edith Piaf for her own biopic demonstrates the remarkable capabilities of AI in recreating distinctive voices. Despite Piaf's passing six decades ago, the AI was able to capture the essence of her voice with remarkable fidelity, providing a poignant reminder of her enduring legacy.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian AI startup Respeecher has been at the forefront of reviving deceased celebrities' voices, including bringing back voice actor MiƂogost Reczek for the video game Cyberpunk 2077 after his passing in 2021. Their work underscores the potential of AI to immortalize the voices of those we've lost, preserving their contributions for future generations to appreciate.

In the realm of visual resurrection, hologram technology has enabled the recreation of deceased celebrities for live performances. From Michael Jackson's posthumous appearance at the 2014 Billboard Awards to Kim Kardashian's hologram gift from Kanye West featuring her late father, Robert Kardashian, holograms offer a surreal yet poignant way of connecting with the departed. In another example, Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher were digitally resurrected for roles in the Star Wars franchise, while an upcoming film titled 'Return to Eden' reportedly features an AI reconstruction of James Dean's likeness. 

As exciting as these developments might seem, the use of AI in resurrecting celebrities raises ethical dilemmas regarding consent, authenticity, and the commodification of posthumous representation. Critics argue that digitally recreating deceased individuals without their explicit consent can distort their legacies and perpetuate exploitative practices. The controversy surrounding the recreation of voices, likenesses, and personas of public figures underscores the need for robust ethical frameworks and transparent governance in AI-driven death care.

While AI offers unprecedented ways of preserving legacies and immortalizing voices, it also requires careful consideration of ethical implications and the need for safeguards to prevent harm. As technology continues to evolve, it's essential to approach its integration with empathy, respect, and a deep understanding of the human experience of loss.

(More to come on this subject!)

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