Generative AI technology, including large language models like ChatGPT and image and video generators like DALL·E 2, has given rise to the concept of “digital necromancy” – the ability to conjure the dead through their digital traces. This has sparked debates around the ethics and cultural implications of such a practice.
In the past decade, advancements in video projection technology, known as “deep fake,” allowed for the resurrection of deceased celebrities like Bruce Lee, Michael Jackson, and Tupac Shakur. These technologies were initially limited to film and music production companies, but with the advent of generative AI, access to these tools has become more widespread.
Startups like Here After and Replika have emerged, leveraging generative AI to reanimate loved ones for those who are grieving. However, this technology raises concerns for some, as the idea of routinely interacting with digital simulations of the dead can be unsettling. The concept of AI-assisted necromancy is viewed with suspicion, seen as a form of dark magic.
However, sociologists studying cultural practices of remembrance and commemoration argue that there is no cause for concern. Continuity of bonds with the deceased through text, images, and artifacts has long been a part of human life. People have historically placed emotional value on relics and likenesses as a way to keep the dead with them. Photography, for example, became a means of preserving memories of loved ones in the 19th century.
Generative AI builds upon existing practices of grieving, remembrance, and commemoration. AI startups in this field use text, audio recordings, photographs, and videos of loved ones to train AI models that allow for posthumous interactions. While concerns of manipulation and violation of integrity exist, it is important to consider each case individually.
Reflection and communication with the dead are not new phenomena. In times of crisis or joy, we often imagine what our lost loved ones would have said to us. The use of images, text, and artifacts has always served as conduits for this form of communion. While encounters with digitally resurrected individuals may seem strange, they should not be mistaken for frauds. They serve as proxies for us to remember and communicate with the deceased.
In conclusion, generative AI and the practice of digital necromancy are extensions of existing cultural practices of remembrance and commemoration. While ethical concerns exist, these technologies do not fundamentally change the way we interact with the dead. It is crucial to consider each case individually and ensure respect for the integrity of the deceased.
– Michael Mair, Dipanjan Saha, Phillip David Brooker and Terence Heng, The Conversation