Would You Live Forever As An A.I. Chatbot?
Microsoft might just let you secure your soul
Cyberpunk 2077, perhaps the most divisive game in a year shackled by a pandemic, counts the cost of identity among its many themes. While its dystopian future drips with neon and sensory pleasure, the game does punctuate the action with moments that soothe the mind. And that’s despite an AI construct (hello, Keanu) renting out a portion of your brain. Using the personal information of a deceased person to create a digital entity might sound like a thought experiment for the future. But Microsoft has been granted a patent that lets it do just that. Someday.
The move draws comparisons to several existing cyberpunk and dystopic forms of fiction. The first thought that traversed my mind was that of Johnny Silverhand, the snarky dead but alive co-protagonist in Cyberpunk 2077. In the game, fictional megacorporation Arasaka’s Secure Your Soul pilot program lets one create a digital engram of a person’s mind and store it in Mikoshi, a ginormous mainframe server built for that very purpose.
Without spoiling the narrative, Secure Your Soul could be used to, in theory, bring people back from the dead. Sure, you need to save a digital construct first but it’s a small price to pay for salvation. The moral implications of a long life are frightening. And that’s before getting into who gets to secure their soul and who doesn’t. The fact that the COVID-19 vaccine is being administered today without a price tag (to the citizen) is comforting. But securing your soul might just become a capitalist’s wet dream.
You only live twice
Indiewire rightly points at Black Mirror, a TV series known for aiming point-blank at the repercussions of humanity’s greatest inventions. In the episode titled “Be Right Back,” Martha Powell (Hayley Atwell) revives her boyfriend Ash Starmer (Domhnall Gleeson) as a digital construct after he dies in a car accident. The AI entity is created by absorbing previous conversations and examining how Ash lived out his social life. Martha eventually goes on a robotic recreation of Ash. The question hangs in the air like a halo of cigarette smoke. At what point is a person truly dead?
Microsoft’s bold patent seeks to access “images, voice data, social media posts, electronic messages, written letters, etc.” to craft digital personas. And while it does mention breathing life into fictional entities and historic figures in the name of education, Microsoft’s chatbot could also correspond to “a friend, a relative, or a celebrity.” It could also let one emulate oneself. Add to that the possibility of being able to modify the attributes of your future self and things get real steamy. Macrotransactions, anyone?
It’s interesting to note how digital footprints let an organization craft a being who is eerily similar to how you are outside the transparent walls of social media platforms. One look at the data Facebook collects outside the platform is evidence enough that it knows a lot more about you than you think. If you’re up for a meaty read, here’s the patent itself. As with all patents, most never see the light of day. But I wouldn’t count Microsoft out of a race that hasn’t even begun. After all, they’ve got more than just their skin in the game.
In a year that has brought civilization to its knees, pondering over what could be isn’t necessarily the right thing to do. We’ve lost so much. And we might have lost a great deal more if not for the valiant efforts of our healthcare systems. But when a trillion-dollar corporation patents a plan to revive lost loved ones as chatbots, I cannot help but think. This could alter the very meaning of grief, for better or worse. While the thought of a dead person’s data being used to deliver adverts to their acquaintances is petrifying, the ability to transfer one’s conscience from flesh to chrome is an idea I find eerily fascinating.