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Life after death? It may depend on how much you tweet, blog, post, or email

If you find it creepy when a deceased person’s Facebook page continues to morph and expand even after they have passed away, life is about to get a whole lot creepier. Enter augmented eternity – a movement that has as its goal using artificial intelligence to convert a person’s digital footprint into a chatbot-like personality capable of answering questions, engaging in discourse, and otherwise impersonating the conversational style of an individual.

Dr. Hossein Rahnama, of MIT Media Lab, is on a crusade to make this vision of the future a reality. Teaming up with researchers at Ryerson University, Rahnama describes his goal as bridging “the gap between life and death by eternalizing our digital identity.” As a person who’s lived to regret more than one Facebook post, the prospect of Rahnama’s success holds out as much promise as it does horror.

Fortunately, for those who have no wish to meet a bastardized semi-sentient version of themselves schmoozing in an internet chat room, there is a more intriguing angle to this technology– that of using such algorithms to resurrect the personalities of such luminaries as Tolstoy, Adam Smith, and Sigmund Freud. The writing of these intellectual giants could very well be sufficient to create an AI personality that mimics their style of thinking and expression.

But there is a catch – much will depend on the quantity and depth of the writing produced during the deceased’s lifetime. Banish all thought of resurrecting the likes of Jesus Christ or Moses. The deep learning algorithms that are used for creating these chatbots require reams of data to get a “feel” for the diction, preferences, and personality quirks that represent an individual.

Sadly, geniuses in the math and sciences who produced little in the way of a written record may also prove impervious to resurrection, taking their curious and idiosyncratic personalities with them to the grave. Conversely, even your garden variety hatemonger broadcasting filth and stupidity online is likely to provide fertile ground for training AI chat bots. The full horror of this was brought home recently when a perverse impulse led to the creation of a chatbot based on the personality of Donald Trump.

One curious artifact of the augmented eternity technology may be a resurgence of interest in the humanities, in particular language and poetry. Already a head hunt is underway in Silicon Valley for exceptional wordsmiths, those whose creativity will provide the fount of linguistic brilliance used for training the chatbots that will soon be answering our phone calls and replying to our online inquiries.

Naturally, privacy is one of the more pressing concerns regarding the chatbots created by the augmented eternity movement. The question of who “owns” the AI personality created from your digital footprint is likely to be a challenging one. Namely, does it belong to the company on whose servers the data resides, or to the individual from whom the data was generated?

Have you stopped to ask yourself recently whether that brilliant, off-the-cuff witticism you made in a tweet last week belongs to you, Twitter, or the company whose chatbot absorbed the data and reconfigured itself to make similar remarks? And how much more complicated will that question become when the chatbots begin changing based on language used by other chatbots? The only clear winner in such a scenario are the lawyers prosecuting copyright and defamation cases. But by then, even the legal counsel may themselves be chatbots – a version of the future already being prosecuted by the folks at IBM who provide the brains behind the Ross Super Intelligent Attorney, an AI used for answering legal questions.

Chatbots filing legal injunctions against other chatbots — even the science fiction master George Orwell might have been left scratching his head.

Now read: IBM’s resistive computing could massively accelerate AI — and get us closer to Asimov’s Positronic Brain

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