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A digital resurrection

Fragment of a conversation with the Digital Twin of Jessica. She died in 2012 and has been brought back to (digital) life by artificial intelligence software. Image credit: Project December

Some twenty years ago at the Future Centre of Telecom Italia in Venice we were busy developing future scenarios powered by advanced telecommunications and more generally by advanced technology.

One of the scenario was about a little kid that used to play with his grandpa through a big screen hung from a wall of his bedroom putting him in touch with the grandpa who lived far away using a seamless video-conference system. So far so good. Then we imagined that grandpa passed away but his character was captured in a digital form and a software could impersonate him to continue his chatting with his grandson.

Our scenario was met with some interest as well as with strong opposition. We ended up presenting a modified version using a software developed by Carnegie Mellon University that impersonated Einstein. That software had access to many interviews with and writings of Einstein and was able to answer question voiced in natural language with a voice impersonating Einstein and a video of Einstein face pronouncing those words. The trick was achieved by a pre-processing of his interviews and text resulting in a large number of sentences that have been read by an actor impersonating like Einstein. The language recognition software understood the question and another software matched that question with a reasonable answer.

We had “Einstein” at our centre for two years and it was a big success with many people spending quite a bit of tie talking to “him”.

More recently we have seen Replika, a software designed by Eugenia Kuyda to stay in touch with a friend who passed away. That software has evolved to give people the possibility of creating a virtual friend and more recently providing the possibility of replicating you, creating a digital twin of yourself.

Now I was prompted to look at Project December that gives you extremely effective tools (watch the clip) to create a Digital Twin of a person. You can read the story of Joshua Barbeau who used the software to create a Digital Twin of his girlfriend who passed away in December 2012. To do that he uploaded the conversations he had with his girlfriend on Facebook and the software, using artificial intelligence, started to impersonate his girlfriend messaging with him (see the picture for a fragment of their conversation).

What is different from the scenario we imagined twenty years ago is not the scenario itself, rather the amazing possibility that technology is providing us: artificial intelligence is able to capture the style, tone, experiences of a person using recorded interactions (and now we have plenty of them on social networks) and enact them creating a “credible” copy. It is so credible, in fact, that it makes all the issues that we were confronting 20 years ago much more serious.

Yet, I personally feel that this kind of technology, impersonation through Digital Twins, is here to stay and will become more and more sophisticated. I am also sure that more and more people will leave to their loved ones, but also to business associates, a digital copy of themselves. These copy may become part of a person’s will, be inherited and of course they have have both and emotional and business value.

I am in no position to say if this is good or bad. I suspect, as is the case with most technologies, it will depend on the use that will be done and the context of use. Personally, I can say that often, as I listen to a song sung by a singer that has passed away I wonder at how real that voice is, and how it is prolonging the life of that person. Likewise watching movies …
Our personal space is just a step forward from the public space and digital resurrection or digital extension of life will, eventually, become a part of our life, an integral part of Digital Reality.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.