Digital Ghosts

By Michael Gregson | Published: 2:00 AM Feb 25 2021
Columns Digital Ghosts

By Michael Gregson

One of the world’s biggest computer companies has been looking into to a way of  communicating with loved-ones beyond the grave – albeit virtually. 

The UK Independent reports that Microsoft has been granted a patent that would allow it to make a chatbot using the personal information of dead people.  

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a chatbot is a computer program that simulates human conversation through voice commands or text chats or both. Chatbot, short for chatterbot, is an Artificial Intelligence (AI) feature that is often used on shopping websites. 

The new Microsoft patent describes creating a chatbot based on the “images, voice data, social media posts, electronic messages”, and more personal information.

“The specific person [who the chatbot represents] may correspond to a past or present entity (or a version thereof), such as a friend, a relative, an acquaintance, a celebrity, a fictional character, a historical figure, a random entity etc”, it goes on to say.

According to the Independent, Microsoft implies that living users could create a digital replacement in the event of their death. The patent even suggests creating 2D or 3D models of specific people – including the dead – from pictures, videos and data about their likes and dislikes found online at sites like Facebook. 

The technology might work to create these digital ghosts – but it could be a legal nightmare. It’s unclear what level of consent would be required to compile enough data for even a fairly basic simulation of a living or once living person. Microsoft has yet to reveal potential user agreement guidelines. But additional likely laws governing data collection, like the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, might scupper advanced chatbot creations. On the other hand, Clearview AI, which provides facial recognition software to law enforcement and private companies, is currently fighting a legal battle in the US to commercially exploit billions of digital avatars scraped from public social media profiles without users’ consent.

Lori Andrews, an American lawyer specialising in the field, told the Gizmodo website of  the potential dangers of creating electronic copycats. “If I were running for office, the chatbot could say something racist as if it were me and dash my prospects for election,” she said. “The chatbot could gain access to various financial accounts or reset my passwords (based on information conglomerated such as a pet’s name or mother’s maiden name which are often accessible from social media). A person could be misled or even harmed if their therapist took a two-week vacation, but a chatbot mimicking the therapist continued to provide and bill for services without the patient’s knowledge of the switch.”

The Microsoft patent mirrors the popular dystopian TV show Black Mirror, which in its second season posed the question would you chat with an AI-enabled bot version of a deceased loved-one?  In the episode “Be Right Back,” a widow starts chatting to a bot-version of her deceased husband via a service provided by a fictional tech firm. Inevitably, it does not end well. Of course Black Mirror is fictional entertainment, but it does explore the possibilities of emerging technologies and like Frankenstein it is a warning and not a roadmap. 

A lack of regulation surrounding people’s data after they die means that, in theory, anyone could collect the data of a deceased person and give it to a service to create a chatbot without the person’s prior consent or the permission of their loved-ones. For example, a cousin of mine who died of cancer a year or two ago, still ‘lives’ on Facebook. All his memories, photos and posts are still there for all to see. Nowhere on his profile does it say he is actually dead. 

Will things still be the same in the future? Would regulations allow companies to make digital versions of human beings without their consent? Would companies take it upon themselves to ask for that consent? I suppose it depends on the company – and how much money they think can be made. 

In a Tweet, Tim O’Brien, General Manager of AI Programs at Microsoft, admitted having some ethical doubts about harvesting the dead for chatbots. “The patent application  predates the AI ethics reviews we do today (I sit on the panel), and I’m not aware of any plan to build/ship (and yes, it’s disturbing).”

By Michael Gregson | Published: 2:00 AM Feb 25 2021

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