Does death exist online?

When someone we knows dies there are certain rituals we all observe; we attend a funeral and we try to say goodbye, but do we need to take part in those rituals if we can live forever online

Most people lead a double life nowadays: one in the physical, real world and one online. In the former, limited by deteriorating skin and bones, at some point we will all cease to exist, but do our online selves ever really die?

Not wanting to delve too deep into stoner philosophy, but with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and a litany of other social media apps and websites, does anyone really cease to exist and do we need to grieve if we still have an almost palpable presence to communicate with? In the past anyone who continued to have contact with the dead would have been ostracised and recommended therapy, but now is it really so crazy that people continue to message Facebook accounts after loved ones have passed away?

“For something like Facebook people’s responses have been ‘when I sit on a park bench and I say a prayer and I talk to her, I don’t know if she hears me, but when I write to her on Facebook she hears me. I know it’s not logical, but that’s how it feels’,” says Stacey Pitsillides, lecturer in Design in the Department of Creative Professions and Digital Arts at the University of Greenwich.

But taking death online hasn’t just allowed people to maintain bonds forged in life, it has also created a legitimate space for people who might not be comfortable grieving in the real world. For example, people who suffer miscarriages or people with extramarital partners can find comfort in an online community of people going through the same things as them.

Message me when I’m gone

Our online presences have in some ways disrupted death. Age-old rituals and traditions no longer serve as a full stop at the end of a life well lived; we can think about ourselves as having a continued relationship with people that have died. This phenomenon may have been brought to the Western world by virtue of lingering digital existences, but as Hannah Rumble, member of the General Council for the Association for the Study of Death and Society (ASDS) and the editorial board for the academic journal Mortality, explains it has long been a part of the grieving process in other parts of the world.

“There is this new thing that people do, which is talking to the dead,” says Rumble.  “It follows a lot of cultures and traditions in Japan and Africa and in other places where actually talking to the dead as ancestors and figuring out what their place is in your life is quite an important thing – that kind of negotiation of actually I want to continue a relationship with you and not let go of it.”

Thanks to the digital world, we can see new rituals around death being constructed, and we are moving beyond traditional right and wrong ways of grieving. “People are making up their own rituals and the fact that these things are appearing online is quite good for people to begin to create the kind of space that allows them to feel comfortable enough to say in the middle of their friendship group, ‘I miss you and I wish you were back here’,” says Rumble.

At the wake

Whether you believe continuing relationships online after death is a good or bad thing, most people would agree that they have no right to impinge on others’ chosen method of grieving. Arguing that it’s a good idea to almost voyeuristically thrust yourself into the midst of others’ grief takes another level of apologist though. But Andréia Martins, journalist, anthropologist and PhD student at the University of Bath’s Centre for Death and Society, argues just that. She explains that in her native Brazil one of the most important rituals following a death is the wake, and Martins is an administrator for a group of Facebook users who tune into strangers’ virtual wakes.

“On a Sunday afternoon they [the viewers] can be at their homes in front of their computers watching the virtual wake of a stranger and they will debate what they’re seeing,” says Martins. “They can make comments about trivial things like the amount of people in the room or the amount of flowers, if there are people crying, but they will also share their own experiences of death and dying, so it can be quite a therapeutic thing to do.”

Martins says she has identified three reasons why people would want to be virtually present at a wake organised for someone they don’t know. Firstly, curiosity draws people in; some people want to be aware of how friends and family behave at a wake. Secondly, if some young people weren’t allowed to attend a funeral for a family member they take the opportunity virtual wakes present to be involved in such a peculiar event, and, thirdly, if someone has recently lost a family person or a friend they may want to see others going through the same experience.

For some virtual wakes may be a morbid experience, but in Martins eyes – and I’m sure to their viewers as well – they have contributed to people having a “nicer relationship with death”.

The afterlife

What people who continue to message Facebook accounts, once their family and friends have passed away, have stumbled upon is that when we die we leave behind vast digital archives that contain our personalities, our fears, our interests and our desires. These archives are created incrementally from information that appears ephemeral, but adds up to us, a complete reproduction of our character. It’s not outrageous then that people would use that information to bring people back from the dead.

This idea has already been explored in fiction. In the sci-fi drama series Black Mirror, a young woman named Martha subscribes to a service that uses her deceased fiancé’s social media accounts to create a digital avatar capable of mimicing his personality. And this has already moved from fiction into real life; a Russian woman Eugenia Kuyda used artificial intelligence to bring back her friend Roman Mazurenko. The bot Kuyda created was able to impersonate Mazurenko and interact with people in text form. While it only represented a shadow of the real man, some people found it therapeutic.

Not everyone will be comfortable communicating with people once they have died, but soon enough everyone may have to ask themselves the question: if you have a chance to keep hold of your loved ones, albeit in another form, would you take it?

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World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has died at the age of 76. When Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease aged 22, doctors predicted he would live just a few more years. But in the ensuing 54 years he married, kept working and inspired millions of people around the world. In his last few years, Hawking was outspoken of the subject of AI, and Factor got the chance to hear him speak on the subject at Web Summit 2017…

Stephen Hawking was often described as being a vocal critic of AI. Headlines were filled with predictions of doom by from scientist, but the reality was more complex.

Hawking was not convinced that AI was to become the harbinger of the end of humanity, but instead was balanced about its risks and rewards, and at a compelling talk broadcast at Web Summit, he outlined his perspectives and what the tech world can do to ensure the end results are positive.

Stephen Hawking on the potential challenges and opportunities of AI

Beginning with the potential of artificial intelligence, Hawking highlighted the potential level of sophistication that the technology could reach.

“There are many challenges and opportunities facing us at this moment, and I believe that one of the biggest of these is the advent and impact of AI for humanity,” said Hawking in the talk. “As most of you may know, I am on record as saying that I believe there is no real difference between what can be achieved by a biological brain and what can be achieved by a computer.

“Of course, there is unlimited potential for what the human mind can learn and develop. So if my reasoning is correct, it also follows that computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence and exceed it.”

Moving onto the potential impact, he began with an optimistic tone, identifying the technology as a possible tool for health, the environment and beyond.

“We cannot predict what we might achieve when our own minds are amplified by AI. Perhaps with the tools of this new technological revolution, we will be able to undo some of the damage done to the natural world by the last one: industrialisation,” he said.

“We will aim to finally eradicate disease and poverty; every aspect of our lives will be transformed.”

However, he also acknowledged the negatives of the technology, from warfare to economic destruction.

“In short, success in creating effective AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation, or the worst. We just don’t know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and sidelined or conceivably destroyed by it,” he said.

“Unless we learn how to prepare for – and avoid – the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilisation. It brings dangers like powerful autonomous weapons or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.

“Already we have concerns that clever machines will be increasingly capable of undertaking work currently done by humans, and swiftly destroy millions of jobs. AI could develop a will of its own, a will that is in conflict with ours and which could destroy us.

“In short, the rise of powerful AI will be either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity.”

In the vanguard of AI development

In 2014, Hawking and several other scientists and experts called for increased levels of research to be undertaken in the field of AI, which he acknowledged has begun to happen.

“I am very glad that someone was listening to me,” he said.

However, he argued that there is there is much to be done if we are to ensure the technology doesn’t pose a significant threat.

“To control AI and make it work for us and eliminate – as far as possible – its very real dangers, we need to employ best practice and effective management in all areas of its development,” he said. “That goes without saying, of course, that this is what every sector of the economy should incorporate into its ethos and vision, but with artificial intelligence this is vital.”

Addressing a thousands-strong crowd of tech-savvy attendees at the event, he urged them to think beyond the immediate business potential of the technology.

“Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit”

“Everyone here today is in the vanguard of AI development. We are the scientists. We develop an idea. But you are also the influencers: you need to make it work. Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit,” he said. “Our AI systems must do what we want them to do, for the benefit of humanity.”

In particular he raised the importance of working across different fields.

“Interdisciplinary research can be a way forward, ranging from economics and law to computer security, formal methods and, of course, various branches of AI itself,” he said.

“Such considerations motivated the American Association for Artificial Intelligence Presidential Panel on Long-Term AI Futures, which up until recently had focused largely on techniques that are neutral with respect to purpose.”

He also gave the example of calls at the start of 2017 by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) the introduction of liability rules around AI and robotics.

“MEPs called for more comprehensive robot rules in a new draft report concerning the rules on robotics, and citing the development of AI as one of the most prominent technological trends of our century,” he summarised.

“The report calls for a set of core fundamental values, an urgent regulation on the recent developments to govern the use and creation of robots and AI. [It] acknowledges the possibility that within the space of a few decades, AI could surpass human intellectual capacity and challenge the human-robot relationship.

“Finally, the report calls for the creation of a European agency for robotics and AI that can provide technical, ethical and regulatory expertise. If MEPs vote in favour of legislation, the report will go to the European Commission, which will decide what legislative steps it will take.”

Creating artificial intelligence for the world

No one can say for certain whether AI will truly be a force for positive or negative change, but – despite the headlines – Hawking was positive about the future.

“I am an optimist and I believe that we can create AI for the world that can work in harmony with us. We simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management and prepare for its consequences well in advance,” he said. “Perhaps some of you listening today will already have solutions or answers to the many questions AI poses.”

You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big

However, he stressed that everyone has a part to play in ensuring AI is ultimately a benefit to humanity.

“We all have a role to play in making sure that we, and the next generation, have not just the opportunity but the determination to engage fully with the study of science at an early level, so that we can go on to fulfill our potential and create a better world for the whole human race,” he said.

“We need to take learning beyond a theoretical discussion of how AI should be, and take action to make sure we plan for how it can be. You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big.

“We stand on the threshold of a brave new world. It is an exciting – if precarious – place to be and you are the pioneers. I wish you well.”