Augmented Eternity – is digital identity the next longevity?

Software agents could become our digital heirs, helping our thoughts, opinions and values live on.

You might think you’ll never change your mind about your favourite song – and now thanks to a nifty machine intelligence network, perhaps you never will. And what’s more, you’ll still be declaring that view to anyone who asks, long after you’re dead.

Tapping into this idea is MIT Media Lab, which has been creating a platform called Augmented Eternity. The team behind the tech uses granular patterns and data clusters to predict the reasoning of an individual.

They say: “We believe that by enabling our digital identity to perpetuate, we can significantly contribute to global expertise and enable a new form of an intergenerational collective intelligence [1].”

Longevity.Technology: Distilling and retaining the essence of self might have an existentialist philosophy vibe, but science is taking a keen interest in preserving the digital persona, and we are making that job somewhat easier by the amount of personal data we leave in our wake. Photos, Tweets, texts, emails… comments on Facebook, what we share, like and comment on, as well as more in-depth clues from blogs, fora and statements – we leave an enormous digital footprint. It all contributes to our digital persona, and because it’s in data form, it can be analysed, retained and interrogated.

MIT’s platform is being tested on the digital footprints of 25 people with the goal of creating immortal digital versions of this beta group. The platform will leverage the data of these individuals, and work out what what opinions and viewpoints would give, replicating their knowledge in something straightforward, like chatbot or a WhatsApp channel, a voice-based assistant or even a 3D avatar. The same algorithmic capability that supports all interfaces.

Hossein Rahnama, a professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and a research affiliate with MIT Media Lab is heading up the project, and sees it as a way of really finding out what someone would do in your shoes.

“What if you could select the digital identity of a deceased person from a social network and activate it as a pluggable ontology into your iPhone’s Siri and ask a question? [1]”

The answer would not only bring comfort to those coping with loss, but assist with business, research and knowledge explain.

Rahnama uses the example of corporate lawyer – expensive to hire, but the digital version trained on her expertise and thought processes, would be a more cost-effective opinion giver.

So, who owns the digital persona? Speaking to the BBC’s Today programme yesterday, Professor Rahnama emphasised that the platform is enabled to collect data on those who have consented, rather than hoovering up the whole world’s Reddit ramblings.

“The program allows people to form a knowledge base of their data while they own their data, and share that in the form of expertise with loved ones; they can use their knowledge base in a chat-based interface or they can use an immersive experience, like a 3D avatar as if you were talking to someone, a digital version very similar to the individual [2].”

For some polarising issues, such as an election, Rahnama explained that the platform tries to deliver an abstract viewpoint, rather than becoming prescriptive, as the team’s research has led them to believe this helps prevent bias.

Digital immortality exists in other forms; last year we covered the launch of AI remembrance platform HereAfter, speaking to Dadbot creator James Vlahos about his platform that gives users the ability to create voice avatars to share their life stories with loved ones.

While MIT’s platform can be used to share knowledge and relate experiences, Rahnama says understandably he is approached by people wishing to leave a legacy behind.

“In addition to the technological aspects we are addressing in this project, a key focus area is more around the ethical nature of using these technologies. How we answer them? Who owns the data? And truly, have we reached a level where we can now trust algorithms to make our identities sentient and allow them to evolve after we die?

“These are key questions that we are trying to address as part of our control programs, pilot programs, research programs – and it’s not just technology. It is to have tools like these allow us to answer certain questions on whether people are comfortable or not comfortable using interfaces like these [2].”