Is it ok to bring the dead back to life using AI?

Media release

05 December 2023

A Deakin University study will develop guidelines for how a person's online profile is managed after they die – including when and how their "digital remains" are reanimated using Artificial Intelligence (AI).

The first-of-its-kind Australian Research Council-funded project will develop guidelines for how individuals interact with data left behind by their dead loved ones, celebrities and even enemies.

Project lead Associate Professor Patrick Stokes of Deakin's School of Humanities and Social Sciences said deceased people left digital footprints rich in data that could be used or abused.

This created significant problems for how an online presence should be managed or disposed of, and who had the authority to make those decisions.

"More people interact online or in digitally mediated ways than ever and we saw this trend accelerate during COVID-19," Associate Professor Stokes said.

"Audio and image files, social media accounts, emails and other digital information are digital remains that can be augmented by new and emerging technologies to revive the dead. This includes by feeding this data into chatbots like ChatGPT or creating deepfake images and videos.

"It can help cope with feelings of grief if a person feels they can see, speak, or interact with a loved one who is deceased using these technologies, but there are risks too. Reanimating the dead – or the living – as interactive multimedia avatars can enable misuse or exploitation of that person's identity and damage their reputation, whether that person be a family member, friend, an ex-partner, or a stranger."

Recent high-profile examples of reanimated data include media personality Kim Kardashian's controversial 40th birthday gift from her then husband Kanye West, who gave her a pseudo-hologram of her dead father, celebrity lawyer Robert Kardashian, delivering a speech.

A teen shot dead in the 2018 Parkland shooting was also reanimated in an election video advocating for gun control, declaring, "Vote for me. Because I can’t."

Associate Professor Stokes said governments, legal practitioners and social media companies had until now largely treated the digital dead as a form of property to be managed or disposed of by next-of-kin just like their physical possessions.

But studies show the profiles were viewed more like a continuation of a deceased person's being rather than an inanimate object they once owned, creating more complexity in how the profile was ethically managed.

"This project will explore to what extent reanimated digital remains are regarded as being the dead person and what we owe that person’s memory when reanimating them," Associate Professor Stokes said.

"It is a project that seeks to get into the ears of policy makers, law makers and technology companies. Recommendations will provide clarity on what people can and can't do with the digital dead so that a person’s memory and integrity are protected."

The three-year project beginning next year will culminate in a series of industry and stakeholder workshops as well as scholarly articles, policy discussion papers and media outreach.

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Media release Faculty of Arts and Education, School of Humanities and Social Sciences