April 29, 2021Deepfake technology blurs line between life and death

From the animation of old family photos to that digital avatar of Rob Kardashian, technology is increasingly being leveraged to give the deceased a digital afterlife. While speaking to the dead is no new phenomenon, never before have they been able to answer back. We explore the insights behind this and how digital immortality is challenging our assumptions about life and death.

Lottie Hanwell

In October 2020, Kanye West surprised his then-wife Kim Kardashian with a digital animation of her late father. In the video, a true-to-life version of Rob Kardashian sends his daughter a message from the grave. The gift, shared widely on social media, offered a hint of things to come.

In February 2021, MyHeritage released Deep Nostalgia, a tool that lets users animate photos of deceased family members. Companies such as Eternime are similarly working to create interactive digital avatars based on the digital footprint of deceased people. As the founder, Marius Ursache puts it, the idea is to create "digital immortality."

In many cultures, communicating with the dead is an integral part of the grieving process. People speak to photos of the deceased, and it’s not uncommon for those who are grieving to message the inactive social media profiles of their loved ones.

It’s likely that this type of grieving ritual is particularly beneficial now: as of 2019, 57% of Americans had grieved the loss of someone close to them in the past three years, and traditional outlets for grief have been restricted in the pandemic. However, while potentially consoling to those left behind, the notion of digital immortality challenges an essential assumption regarding our right to die and be forgotten.

The use of our digital footprint to keep some aspect of us ‘alive’ after we pass raises the ethical question of who has the right to our identity after we're gone. To mitigate the risk of these technologies, companies are already developing ‘digital undertaking services.’ For example, The Digital Beyond helps people plan the future of their online presence.

Lottie Hanwell is a behavioural analyst at Canvas8. She has a degree in English Literature and Spanish, and spends her time thinking, researching and writing about developments in society and culture. On her weekends, she likes to run, read and make a mess in the kitchen.

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