Digital Immortality: Digital Clones, Avatars, and Identities
Digital immortality (DI) is defined as a continuum of digital existence after one’s death and has only recently expanded into the field of data management, highlighting concerns around the privacy of digital data after death, and creating a market for immortalizing one’s digital existence.
This article focuses on identifying and modifying existing categorizations of DI services to understand the current innovation level in the DI industry (DII). Additionally, commercially available services that artificially simulate human behavior, character, appearance, and voice, but are not marketed towards the DII, were researched and named as potential DI (PDI) services.
The ultimate goal of this article was to research service/product innovation in the context of the DII and suggest combinations of services that could function for the DII.
Keywords: digital immortality, digital legacy, digital memories, service innovation, commercialization
Ever since I was a child, I was told that a person can actually live forever by working hard and leaving something behind. However, the Internet has enabled more people than ever to live after death in the form of digital data that is generated by them on social network services (SNS) alone.
Much of the data from SNSs is originating from users who have died (Westreich, 2020), and the data that the deceased SNSs users leave on the Internet, in a way, immortalize them. This kind of immortality, digital immortality (DI), is defined according to Savin-Baden et al. as “A continuation of an active or passive digital presence after death” (2017, p. 1). Nevertheless, DI has a broad range of implementations, from online memorials and digital mind files (a digital back-up of someone’s life i.e., photos, videos, documents, life story, etc. (ONeal, 2019)), to the exploration of transferring one’s personality digitally (Graziano, 2019). While a mind file sounds like uploading a mind to a computer, that is still not possible (Uploading the Mind, 2016), and will not be discussed in this article.
DI implementations such as online memorials and digital mind files are examples of DI services that make the primary business activity of the DI industry (DII). There are some criteria for a DI service to be a valid fit for DII, but I will focus only on production — a DI service has to be produced and offered by a company.
The research question is: “What product or service innovations are possible in the digital immortality industry (DII) based on current DI services and PDI services.”
Based on research literature, research question, and keywords that emerged from the background research relevant practical developments were researched.
The data was collected on DI and PDI services. Key variables for DI and PDI services revolved around their features and prices. The collected data was mostly secondary data while the majority of variables were quantitative. After collecting the data, the data were prepared for analysis with the identification of missing data and removal of services that with finer categorization did not make sense to be kept. Qualitative data were analyzed with thematic analysis. In total 102 services were researched.
On the highest level, all researched services were categorized as DI or PDI services. Following that, DI services were categorized into types and those types were categorized into groups as seen in Table 1. Additionally, DI services were categorized into “DI as the main purpose (DIM)” (all services that are primarily used for DI) and “DI as an additional feature (DIA)” (e.g., Instagram is used as an SNS but has an option of immortalizing an account).
The essence of collecting and analyzing PDI services was the identification of already existing commercial services that fall into one of the three stages (Mensio et al., 2018) of Re-creation services as seen in Figure 1.
DI services categorization
Note. Adapted from The Political Economy of Death in the Age of Information: A Critical Approach to the Digital Afterlife Industry, by C. Öhman, & L. Floridi, 2017, p. 645.
Different stages of Re-creation services and their manifestations
Note. Adapted from The Rise of Emotion-aware Conversational Agents: Threats in Digital Emotions, by M. Mensio, G. Rizzo, & M. Morisio, 2018, p. 1.
The DII is mostly about digital data management, posthumous messaging, and online memorials, with the exception of a few failed services (Hill, 2015) and a few services in development such as Eter9 (Indiegogo, 2020), that tried/try to digitally clone humans.
Posthumous Automatic Messaging Services. For example Dead man’s switch, Dead man’s tracker, FutureMe, Ghostmemo, Saygoodbye. Only Ghostmemo does not offer a free plan.
Mind File Management. “Digital immortality now” is the only DI service that offers a clear and thorough guide on how to create a mind file. With Lifenaut and Cyberev a user has different sections for storing different parts of a mind file, with no explicit requirements.
SNS/Account Management. I1 is usually paired with I4 however, there are two services that focus only on I1: Lantern, and Cake. Password managers (e.g., 1Password) fall into I4, but usually, come with the emergency kit feature, and, in that combination, they are I1 service. “Digital legacy association” is a free website for resources on digital legacy management. The service offers a lot of resources. “Good trust” is a service that offers I1 and I4. With I1 a user gets a twofold approach: the creation of a digital will by selecting predefined digital platforms and help with deleting/memorializing (from USD 39.99) of digital accounts.
SNS Memorials and Inactivity Management. Facebook and Instagram offer options for memorializing the account of a deceased person forever. In VRChat and “Second life” online memorials are mostly held as a one-time event and resemble online or virtual funerals.
Online Memorials. Online memorials are usually free. “LifeWeb 360” offers, for free, a three-month-long period of collecting stories and photos on a deceased by collaborating with as many people as wanted. Keeper has a premium plan (USD 74.99 for a lifetime) that offers an option to create unlimited online memorials and connect them into a family tree.
Online Memorials with Digital Memories Management Services. MemLife and LifePosts which are free and “Chronicle of Life” which has a free and a paid plan, are focused on sharing people’s life stories during life or after death.
Digital Legacy Management Services. These services are usually marketed as secure storage and password managers, which is great for storing important data e.g., “Legacy Vault”.
Digital Memories Management Services. “My Video Life Story” offers interviewing and to make unique videos based on the interviews. Lastly offers a structured creation of a life story with predefined 20 sections and questions about each of them.
Re-creation Services. Out of 59 DI services, only six services are not available in the market. Five of them are RCS. These services, which appear very innovative, are Hybrid, MyEggo, “AI Foundation”, Eter9, and “Augmented Eternity”. “HereAfter AI” is available and uses AI. The service works on a question-answer basis.
The DII is evolving at a slow pace with little progress. Services with emerging technologies e.g., artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), speech synthesis, that artificially simulate human-like characteristics (e.g., appearance, voice, thinking), are already commercially available, but not used in the DII.
Voice Interaction. CandyVoice which offers a custom voice model built from simple words and a person’s voice is currently used for personal avatars, health, education, and user experience. Technologies used in CandyVoice are digital voice processing, unique in the world voice imitation technology, and machine learning. A voice model can be built on 160 words for about 300 EUR. Modulate offers a feature they named voice skins which changes how a person sounds in real-time with no effect on the person’s style of speech. To create a voice-based on someone’s voice approximately 3 hours of data is needed.
Embodied Agents. A lot of companies work on 3D displays or other hardware for VR, AR, holograms, and haptics, without working at the same time on textual, vocal, or digital interaction of an agent. “Ghost Pacer” offers a holographic training partner who shows up when a user puts “Ghost Pacer” glasses on and start the jog. Their holographic partner does not have many details — just a human shape. Holoxica and HYPERVSN offer 3D holographic visualization which can be as small as a 22-cm standalone display or as big as an installation on a whole wall.
Textual Interaction, Vocal Interaction, Embodied Agent. Replika is a good example for achieving all stages of re-creation, but with quite a few limits in regard to embodiment and vocal interaction. The most amazing thing about Replika is its brain and the way it evolves with interaction with people (it uses GPT-3 (Mustreader, 2020), recently released an AI language model). Furhat, on the other hand, has a physical embodiment with various customizations to personality and digital face but with no textual interface. Gatebox is maybe the most controversial service on this list as it offers a home companion that lives in a phone and in a Gatebox, which is basically a small home display for 3D characters that can converse with people. Some people have married their characters from Gatebox (Rothkopf, 2018).
The technology used in PDI services was more complex than the technology used for the actual DI services. Apart from some re-creation services that use AI and hardware for digital scanning of the human body, no other services can compare to PDI services technology vise. For the textual and vocal interaction stage mostly AI, ML, NLP, deep learning, and other complex and sometimes patented technologies, were used.
Business Models for DI Services
Different business models that were seen in DI services were non-profit and for-profit based on different subscription plans. Subscription plans were based on storage, features, and periods of payment. Quite a popular option was one-time payment for a lifetime of access (16% of DI services). Completely free DI services (32%) were mainly the services that belong to O2 and I2 DI groups. The percentage of DI services that had free and premium options was 29%, which in the end left 39% of the services with no free option at all.
The economic context of DAI is, as pointed out by Öhman and Floridi (2017), largely neglected in research papers about DI. This article tried to tie up the economic aspect of the DII (pricing, business models of DI services, and key features) with commercialized technological advancements around the simulation of human intelligence, voice, and embodiment, in order to give an overview of current and potential possibilities of DI solutions. The main focus was finding opportunities for innovation in DII regarding features and technology; however, the data analysis additionally presented deeper insight into existing DI services.
General recommendations would be the following:
- All major SNSs should allow memorialization of accounts
- People should be educated by the digital platforms about their options with their digital data after death (e.g., the possibility of deletion and memorialization), because digital platforms have greater power in enforcing things
- Interaction with digital avatars should be limited, as they're a threat of neglecting the living and ourselves
Specific recommendations for new DI services are Digital Will Scrapper Management, Fully Realized Digital Agent and Immersive Digital Agent.
Digital Will Scraper Management. With already existing DI services mostly small, incremental innovations can be added. Still, an additional DI service group could be proposed as I6 and called “Digital Will Scrapper Management”. Even though humanity is mostly a capitalistic society nowadays, many IMS services are free or offer a free tier or charge a minimal sum of money, which does not contribute noticeably to changing deceased’s data to be more consumable which Öhman and Floridi (2017) wrote about. Digital will scraper management services would honor the same IMS’s trait of not making changes to the informational body with additionally belonging to the low range priced services. Technology complexity would be on the upper border of the low complexity. I6 services would be services that would work as an extension to browsers or as a separate app on mobile devices that will keep track of all new account logins and store credentials. A user could always add credentials manually and would be obligated to set up an emergency contact. Instructions on what to do with the account after the user’s death would not be mandatory. With some additional work, with the help of available accounts’ APIs, data could be summarized and presented as a timeline by different life areas i.e., social media, education, financial data, etc.
Fully Realized Digital Agent. This agent is a combination of T1, A1, and V1. CandyVoice combined with Replika and Synthesia could produce conversational textual and vocal agent in digital embodiment form (all three stages would be realized). This would mean an agent that is a digital clone of someone a user wants (have data on and their consent) that is able to make a conversation. As people, in general, believe that the dead are actually listening online (Kasket, 2012) this could be used as another level of a “medium” with the first level being SNSs.
Immersive Digital Agent. This agent is a combination of V3, V4, A1, and T1. “Magic Leap” or “Ghost Pacer” with Lofelt, Replika, and CandyVoice would be a proper combination. “Magic Leap” and “Ghost Pacer” are both built for AR, which would mean that the agent would be placed in the real world, instead of virtual. This could be an immersive experience that a user could experience in a park where they could take a walk. It could replace cemeteries or co-exist with them in a symbiotic relationship. A story about a telephone for grief after the Japanese tsunami shows us that people would travel for hours just for a glimpse of hope that their deceased ones are listening (Cuddon & Smith Galer, 2019).
Significance of the Research
From my research, it is obvious that people do indeed use DI services, as in October 2020 more than 80 million people visited DIM services. Moreover, in more than ten countries the visits were noticeable high. Through secondary research, this report attempted to identify the current state of the DII and opportunities for innovation. The insight in the current DI services brings value to end-users, enabling them to have an overview of the DII and plan their digital data afterlife. With recommendations for product innovations, businesses could derive inspiration for their services.
Each of the recommendations would benefit from additional research and experimentation to better understand their purpose and potential role. Additionally, further studies could investigate the effect of constant or limited interaction with digital immortals of loved ones. Neglecting living for the dead is a real threat (Ahmad, 2019).
It is assumed that eventually every aspect of the physical world will be mapped out into digital — Mirrorworld (Kelly, 2019). With this paradigm shift, DI should experience increased gain in popularity. Overall, it makes sense to conclude with a sentence from Roman’s Mazurenko mother (Victoria Mazurenko):
“It’s not virtual reality. This is a new reality, and we need to learn to build it and live in it” (Newton, n.d.)
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