The 'virtual ancestor'

June 06, 2019 18:33
When Facebook celebrated its eighth birthday in 2015, 30 million of its users had already passed away. Photo: Bloomberg

In the age of the internet, different concepts regarding life and death have begun emerging.

The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) of the University of Oxford recently published a study which projects that “dead users” are likely to outnumber those who are still alive on Facebook in about 50 years.

At present, Facebook has over 2 billion users around the world. When the social media giant celebrated its eighth birthday in 2015, 30 million of its users had already passed away.

Based on the assumption that 8,000 Facebook users die every day on average, the OII report estimates that, if the social media network continues growing at current rates, by the end of this century, the number of dead Facebook users is likely to stand between 1.4 and 4.9 billion, thereby turning the social media site into the world’s largest “digital graveyard”.

Today, in fact, many people are using the social media accounts left behind by departed friends or family members to mourn or commemorate them.

Facebook has also launched artificial intelligence (AI) tools for commemorating family members, relatives and friends who have passed away.

Amid the fast-paced development of technology, AI can mimic real-life conversations, actions and emotional reactions that they seem so real.

Thanks to AI, “chatbots” are also rapidly coming of age.

And as AI technologies are becoming increasingly mature, it is perhaps no longer beyond our wildest dreams that, through machine learning, our deceased loved ones could one day come back to life on the internet, and that we can have conversations with our “virtual ancestors” online.

For now, we may still be able to differentiate between the chatbot and the real person. But will we still be able to tell the difference if AI can not only mimic the voice but also the mind of the deceased?

If that is the case, will the fine line between the chatbot and the real person simply disappear?

And that brings us to another interesting question: in 2019, we can still tell whether the person with whom we are chatting on video or audio is a real-life human or not.

But what would happen in the future if we can no longer tell whether we are actually talking with a real person or an AI machine just by judging from the voice or image?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 4

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal