Digital Afterlife——Is it true to resurrect by AI?

Review the Background: You and I are gonna live forever

Do you fantasize that we can all live forever after death? If your family members or friends died suddenly due to an accident, would you agree that she could be brought back to life through technological means and be with you in a virtual avatar?

In fact, this kind of “digital afterlife” scenario was featured in the TV program “Black Mirror” more than a decade ago. In the episode “Be Right Back,” main actress used an artificial intelligence robot to bring her dead husband back to life. The AI robot learned and mimicked the man’s voice through his social media remains. The existence of “digital afterlife” brings some comfort to those who have lost their loved ones.

The technology was too advanced to realize at that time. While 4 years later, Eternime launched the project “Skype for the dead”, which aimed to create digital avatars using digital information left behind on the Internet by people who had already passed away (Hinz, 2024). At that time, however, algorithms and AI technologies were not yet mature. As Lee (2018) said “I think we are just not ready yet.” Since the public knew very little about AI technology, Eternime’s creation of “Skype for the dead ” did not achieve substantial results.

What happened now?

But now it’s already 2024. In recent years, cutting-edge technologies have overturned the old way of life. People have become accustomed to a digital society, and AI seems to be embedded in every aspect of daily life such as customer service bots in shopping sites; the birth of ChatGPT; invention of driverless cars etc. Just at the beginning of 2024, AI legacy technology reconstruction (also known as digital afterlife/digital immortality/digital resurrections) has become popular in China. AI industry is booming in China. About 1 month ago, Taiwanese musician Tino Bao resurrected his daughter as a virtual avatar, who had passed away due to the illness earlier. The life of the 22-year-old daughter was forever stopped in 2019. Because Bao missed his daughter badly, he has devoted himself to researching AI technology for three years after her death and successfully resurrected her with a scientific team he led. Tino Bao (Da Win Dining, 2023) said “I hope more people can realize the power of AI, and I introduced this digital resurrection technology to the public through my own example. Let them see that AI is an effective way to relieve grief.” Moreover, all the profit related to this technology will be donated to medical organizations through Rong Bao foundation.

Figure 1: Tino Bao’s daughter said happy birthday to her mom (South China Morning Post, 2024).

The phenomenon of digital afterlife is not limited to celebrities. Three months ago, Mr. Wu, who lives in Zhejiang Province, met his son for the first time in the virtual world through a third-party company. Like Bao, he found it hard to accept that his son had passed away in a traffic accident at the age of 22. He spent thousands of dollars hiring AI firms that cloned face and voice of his son. Zewei Zhang who founded the AI firm and created the digital avatar for Mr. Wu. According to Zhang, his company charged up to $2800 to create a basic avatar within about 20 days (FRANCE 24 English, 2023). From what he describes, AI technology is no longer as difficult to master as it used to be, and the profits that individual third-party tech companies are relying on it are growing rapidly.

How does digital afterlife actually work?

This program started with collecting data of the deceased left all over the internet. Since entering the era of big data, there is no way for human beings to live without data. All the actions leave digital footprints, including social media interaction, messages, videos, voice recordings, photographs and so on (Halliday, 2023). Then artificial intelligence algorithms are introduced to analyze these digital footprints, and through repeated training of the algorithmic models, gradually the AI can identify linguistic as well as behavioral features, and apply these information features in virtual avatars. “Synthetic media is content created through the use of AI-equipping algorithmic deep learning technology to create incredibly lifelike artificial media (Roberts, 2023, p. 277).” Simply put, digital afterlife is a simulated media based on AI technology that relies entirely on the digital footprints left by the deceased during their lifetime. The digital remains of the target subject (digital afterlife) are layered onto other unrelated existing subjects. After that these clones are modified and adapted to maximize the possibility of adapting to the extracted biological characteristics. Thus, AI is not intelligent. “It’s not like the ideology of Cartesian dualism in artificial intelligence: where AI is narrowly understood as disembodied intelligence, removed from any relation to the material world (Crawford, 2021, p. 7).” Artificial intelligence systems are not autonomous and independent. Without data from the society, and without large-scale, complex computer training, AI can neither be a presence that improves the quality of human life, nor create the phenomenon of digital afterlife (Crawford, 2021).

Growing controversy of reviving with AI

This seems that digital afterlife is indeed a practical AI product that could be available to a wide audience in the future. At least the human connection can be immortalized and continued, which gives people a place to send their miss instead of being separated by life and death. While this advanced resurrection program is very meaningful, at the same time it brings up some ethical concerns. Are we really resurrecting someone? Who else can we help bring back from the dead besides ourselves? Can digital afterlife really replace a person completely?

Dr Masaki Iwasaki of Harvard Law School and currently an assistant professor at Seoul National University, makes a study to analyze the relation between the deceased’s consent/dissent and attitudes towards digital resurrection.

However, when he later used observational research to explore the optimal default rule, it suggests that 59% of subjects refused to make their own digital afterlives. What emerges from this study is that the social acceptability of digital resurrection is closely related to the subjective will of the individual. But most of the time, you never know which comes first, tomorrow or the accident. Just like Tino Bao and Mr. Wu, who agreed to digital afterlife in place of their own children. The question is how can the personal wishes of the deceased be proven? This is one of the ethical dilemmas digital afterlife is currently facing.

  1. Are we resurrecting others or saving ourselves?

As Bao (Da Win Dining, 2023) said in the TV show: Mostly digital avatar will say something happened after their deaths that their daughters wouldn’t say or talk about when living. Therefore, digital afterlife is essentially a virtual avatar based on the demands of the mourners, which is completely contrary to what Dr Masaki Iwasaki wants to emphasize: respect for the personal choice. Because it is very difficult to maintain the honor and dignity of a person after death on a legal level (Roberts, 2023). This kind of non-commercial memorialization does not involve profit for private families, they just glorify their own selfishness by resurrecting the deceased. Actually, digital resurrection is often embedded in celebrity culture with modes of monetization. Endorsements of deceased celebrities are extremely profitable, but for most of the times the deceased celebrity’s agent or company directly manages the celebrity’s advertising interests on behalf of the celebrity’s family and professional staff (Sherlock, 2013). This type of consumption of the deceased has even gone beyond ethical standards which is against the law. For example, in 2006, Bob Monkhouse, the famous British comedian, was resurrected in an advertisement aimed to raise awareness of prostate cancer. This ad finally brought a fifty-thousand-pound advertising budget increase for the Prostate Cancer Research Foundation (Sherlock, 2013). 

  1. Can digital afterlife replaces the dead equally?

AI technology is essentially about generating predictions of the future based on past data. In addition to the fact mentioned previously, which is impossible for the deceased to explore future events. According to Goffman’s theory of performances, digital footprints do not fully show the whole picture of a person. Since the data that is publicly available in social media platforms rather than private, which means individuals are more or less performing in the public space. However, there must be a more authentic performance in their private lives. Therefore, despite the complexity of digital afterlife, it is still impossible to fully display the nuanced dynamics.

  1. Is digital afterlife easing grief or exacerbating suffering?

Not everyone agrees that digital resurrection is effective in alleviating grief over the loss of a loved one. On the contrary, if the avatar is not able to provide effective emotional support due to technical failures, or if the avatar utilizes another person’s digital footprint for profit without their permission, all these scenarios can cause secondary harm (Bao & Zeng, 2024). Last month, a Chinese vlogger used AI technology to resurrect famous Chinese American singer Coco Lee and posted videos among Chinese social media. The vlogger then explained that he doesn’t aim to earn money but just want to express love for Coco (Ke, 2024). Coco Lee’s family said the videos were posted without their consent, which made them very uncomfortable. Repeated references to Coco’s death have caused them pain, which is like “rubbing salt into the wound”. And they have demanded that the related videos should be taken down entirety.

Figure 2: Coco Lee’s family members want to these AI videos be removed (HK Reporter, 2024).

The need for governance

Since AI is complicated, it is an impossible goal to complete transparency. How to govern and regulate the use of digital afterlife is an issue that needs to be addressed. Bao and Zeng (2024) insist that “Digital afterlife should work as transitional tools of remembrance, rather than permanent solutions (p. 1).” The sadness that comes with death often causes us to recall our emotions for the deceased and realize the importance of the deceased. The grief produced by the death of a loved one is by no means transient that it is an ongoing process. Actually, it is simply a matter of time passing as the mourner adjusts to not having the deceased living with them, using time to fade their grief away. If digital afterlife serves as a long-term companion, then those who mourn may find it difficult to extricate themselves from their grief and instead fall into a state of persistent suffering. Therefore, is it possible to set a reasonable period to own digital afterlife so that the mourners will not become dependent on the digital avatar, and digital afterlife can really become a product to relieve their grief. In addition, due to the current advanced technology, AI often makes it impossible for people to distinguish between reality and virtual reality. In order to prevent the mourners from having the illusion that the virtual afterlife is a real person in their daily contact, the technicians can embed some bugs in the development process, so that the imperfections can make people realize that the digital afterlife is virtual and avoid excessive emotional connection with the virtual AI.

The GDPR connects Internet users to data, rather than simplifying their identity to ‘users’. The GDPR also specifies the circumstances under which data processing is lawful, the first of which is “The data subject gave you specific, unambiguous consent to process the data (Wolford, 2023). ” The digital footprints mentioned repeatedly in the text are the digital remains left behind by digital subjects. Digital afterlife, to be precise, is similar to the museum collections and they are displayed for the living to consume. Therefore, digital afterlife industry (DAI) can be managed by drawing on the ethical as well as regulatory framework of archaeological exhibitions (Öhman & Floridi, 2018).

In conclusion, AI is not the only way to be immortal. When we use AI we also need to be alert to the hidden dangers behind it.


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Da Win Dining. (2023, September 13). 20230913Anthony BaoTino Bao#Rare Diseases #AI Tribute to a Loved One #Brotherly Support #Da Win Dining Interviews [Video]. YouTube.

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HK Reporter. (2024, March 30). (NEWS) Coco Lee’s mother denounces AI videos [Video]. YouTube.

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Lee, C. (2018, May 25). Eternime. Is there life after death with AI? – The Startup – Medium. Medium.

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