Virtually Exploring the Undiscovered Country
I have multiple friends who have lost loved ones recently. Some of them work in XR. And so a topic we occasionally explore is the role of XR and “digital twins” in this case to bring the departed back into this world, or not. I write this with great respect and empathy for anyone who has lost someone and ask that you’d respond in kind.
The idea of digitally re-incarnating people raises many ethical and even health questions. The technical questions are somewhat less interesting, given we can feed everyone’s audio and video into machine learning and get some kind of facsimile, at least limited to the quality of the inputs. Whether the digital twin is accurate, effective or not relates back to the ethical and health questions.
While there are ways the living can be helped by interacing with digitally re-incarnated loved ones, there is also a natural grieving processes that can’t be short-cut or avoided. There is a psychological need to let go, even if we can never fully do so, and a competing need to hold on. Getting stuck in the past can limit our ability to live life, which is probably not what our loved ones would want for us. But getting the wrong impression from a poorly crafted digital twin can do actual harm, cause pain, and so on.
On the other hand, memorials can be really healing and emotionally empowering, in moderate doses. So rather than try to fully bring the dead back using their saved videos and social media, what if we limited ourselves to animated, perhaps interactive, memorials? What if we also normalized expecting consent for these endeavors?
Rather than relying on AI to get the personality right and risking some big misunderstandings when they don’t, I’d favor let relatives edit and choose the parts of the personalities that they want and need to see.
For example, if someone never got the chance to come out to their father, they could arrange a session where they could do so virtually, and with some extra safety rails to be affirming, even if the father was gruff.
If someone just needs to hear how they were loved or say it too, we could ensure the healing response without all the things that made it so hard to say when they were alive. So this becomes more like therapy than prolonged attachment.
What do you think?