Dead man talking
Death is a great unifier. The experience of bereavement can blur cultural and linguistic barriers. The ways of coping with the loss of a loved one are diverse — in Sudan, people celebrate the dead by dressing in their likeness and dancing; the Torajans of Indonesia have been known to care for and talk to a mummified body months after the person has died. What is common to most cultures, however, is the desire for contact with those who have passed on. It is not surprising that one of the oldest — and perhaps most enduring — means of coping with loss is communion with the dead. In pre-industrial societies the shaman — he survives in ancient pockets of the modern world — served as the crucial link between the worlds of the living and the dead. This link to the shadowy world may have been rendered tenuous by the cold shard of scientific reasoning. But loss does not yield to reason: the desire to communicate with loved ones beyond the grave persists.
Even science seems to have taken note of this bond, donning the mask of the shaman in the process. Microsoft has filed a patent, which raises the intriguing possibility of digitally reincarnating dead people as a chat bot. The artificial intelligence bot would use ‘social data’ — images, voice data, social media posts, electronic messages and letters — to build the profile of the deceased and a 2D or 3D model of the person may be generated using images and video data. Essentially, technology would be striving to create digital surrogates of the dead. This copy could exist in a kind of virtual Elysium, able to Skype into family dinners long after a person has died. For the bereaved, this could be a balm for their pain. But the cultural and philosophical implications of science resurrecting the dead are worrying. Loss is integral to life, deepening its meaning for humanity. It is the fear of as well as the experience of loss that, ironically, gives humanity its ability to relate to and hold dear the world, its beings and values. The prospect of immortality could well snuff out this shared joy and spirit of empathy, hurtling civilization towards an unimaginable ennui. Moreover, is it not death that remains the ultimate marker of difference between man and machine?
The blurring of lines between science and neo-shamanism raises other interesting questions. Science has long been criticized for its reliance on positivism and empiricism, traits that, while being critical to challenge the irrational, have also made the scientific pursuit immune to the world of emotions. It seems that advancements — AI is one example — are arming science to attain a more humane essence. But the transformation — concession to emotion — can do a lot of damage to the edifice of rationality. Also, an AI chat bot equivalent of the dear departed would, essentially, be equivalent to pulling the wool over the discerning eye. Science’s conquest of the final frontier — mortality — remains incomplete. Unlike the shaman, science will not be able to make the dead — a technological amalgamation of facts and images of a lived life — speak of their new, nebulous world.