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#433807 The How, Why, and Whether of Custom ...

A digital afterlife may soon be within reach, but it might not be for your benefit.

The reams of data we’re creating could soon make it possible to create digital avatars that live on after we die, aimed at comforting our loved ones or sharing our experience with future generations.

That may seem like a disappointing downgrade from the vision promised by the more optimistic futurists, where we upload our consciousness to the cloud and live forever in machines. But it might be a realistic possibility in the not-too-distant future—and the first steps have already been taken.

After her friend died in a car crash, Eugenia Kuyda, co-founder of Russian AI startup Luka, trained a neural network-powered chatbot on their shared message history to mimic him. Journalist and amateur coder James Vlahos took a more involved approach, carrying out extensive interviews with his terminally ill father so that he could create a digital clone of him when he died.

For those of us without the time or expertise to build our own artificial intelligence-powered avatar, startup Eternime is offering to take your social media posts and interactions as well as basic personal information to build a copy of you that could then interact with relatives once you’re gone. The service is so far only running a private beta with a handful of people, but with 40,000 on its waiting list, it’s clear there’s a market.

Comforting—Or Creepy?
The whole idea may seem eerily similar to the Black Mirror episode Be Right Back, in which a woman pays a company to create a digital copy of her deceased husband and eventually a realistic robot replica. And given the show’s focus on the emotional turmoil she goes through, people might question whether the idea is a sensible one.

But it’s hard to say at this stage whether being able to interact with an approximation of a deceased loved one would be a help or a hindrance in the grieving process. The fear is that it could make it harder for people to “let go” or “move on,” but others think it could play a useful therapeutic role, reminding people that just because someone is dead it doesn’t mean they’re gone, and providing a novel way for them to express and come to terms with their feelings.

While at present most envisage these digital resurrections as a way to memorialize loved ones, there are also more ambitious plans to use the technology as a way to preserve expertise and experience. A project at MIT called Augmented Eternity is investigating whether we could use AI to trawl through someone’s digital footprints and extract both their knowledge and elements of their personality.

Project leader Hossein Rahnama says he’s already working with a CEO who wants to leave behind a digital avatar that future executives could consult with after he’s gone. And you wouldn’t necessarily have to wait until you’re dead—experts could create virtual clones of themselves that could dispense advice on demand to far more people. These clones could soon be more than simple chatbots, too. Hollywood has already started spending millions of dollars to create 3D scans of its most bankable stars so that they can keep acting beyond the grave.

It’s easy to see the appeal of the idea; imagine if we could bring back Stephen Hawking or Tim Cook to share their wisdom with us. And what if we could create a digital brain trust combining the experience and wisdom of all the world’s greatest thinkers, accessible on demand?

But there are still huge hurdles ahead before we could create truly accurate representations of people by simply trawling through their digital remains. The first problem is data. Most peoples’ digital footprints only started reaching significant proportions in the last decade or so, and cover a relatively small period of their lives. It could take many years before there’s enough data to create more than just a superficial imitation of someone.

And that’s assuming that the data we produce is truly representative of who we are. Carefully-crafted Instagram profiles and cautiously-worded work emails hardly capture the messy realities of most peoples’ lives.

Perhaps if the idea is simply to create a bank of someone’s knowledge and expertise, accurately capturing the essence of their character would be less important. But these clones would also be static. Real people continually learn and change, but a digital avatar is a snapshot of someone’s character and opinions at the point they died. An inability to adapt as the world around them changes could put a shelf life on the usefulness of these replicas.

Who’s Calling the (Digital) Shots?
It won’t stop people trying, though, and that raises a potentially more important question: Who gets to make the calls about our digital afterlife? The subjects, their families, or the companies that hold their data?

In most countries, the law is currently pretty hazy on this topic. Companies like Google and Facebook have processes to let you choose who should take control of your accounts in the event of your death. But if you’ve forgotten to do that, the fate of your virtual remains comes down to a tangle of federal law, local law, and tech company terms of service.

This lack of regulation could create incentives and opportunities for unscrupulous behavior. The voice of a deceased loved one could be a highly persuasive tool for exploitation, and digital replicas of respected experts could be powerful means of pushing a hidden agenda.

That means there’s a pressing need for clear and unambiguous rules. Researchers at Oxford University recently suggested ethical guidelines that would treat our digital remains the same way museums and archaeologists are required to treat mortal remains—with dignity and in the interest of society.

Whether those kinds of guidelines are ever enshrined in law remains to be seen, but ultimately they may decide whether the digital afterlife turns out to be heaven or hell.

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#433803 This Week’s Awesome Stories From ...

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
The AI Cold War That Could Doom Us All
Nicholas Thompson | Wired
“At the dawn of a new stage in the digital revolution, the world’s two most powerful nations are rapidly retreating into positions of competitive isolation, like players across a Go board. …Is the arc of the digital revolution bending toward tyranny, and is there any way to stop it?”

LONGEVITY
Finally, the Drug That Keeps You Young
Stephen S. Hall | MIT Technology Review
“The other thing that has changed is that the field of senescence—and the recognition that senescent cells can be such drivers of aging—has finally gained acceptance. Whether those drugs will work in people is still an open question. But the first human trials are under way right now.”

SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY
Ginkgo Bioworks Is Turning Human Cells Into On-Demand Factories
Megan Molteni | Wired
“The biotech unicorn is already cranking out an impressive number of microbial biofactories that grow and multiply and burp out fragrances, fertilizers, and soon, psychoactive substances. And they do it at a fraction of the cost of traditional systems. But Kelly is thinking even bigger.”

CYBERNETICS
Thousands of Swedes Are Inserting Microchips Under Their Skin
Maddy Savage | NPR
“Around the size of a grain of rice, the chips typically are inserted into the skin just above each user’s thumb, using a syringe similar to that used for giving vaccinations. The procedure costs about $180. So many Swedes are lining up to get the microchips that the country’s main chipping company says it can’t keep up with the number of requests.”

ART
AI Art at Christie’s Sells for $432,500
Gabe Cohn | The New York Times
“Last Friday, a portrait produced by artificial intelligence was hanging at Christie’s New York opposite an Andy Warhol print and beside a bronze work by Roy Lichtenstein. On Thursday, it sold for well over double the price realized by both those pieces combined.”

ETHICS
Should a Self-Driving Car Kill the Baby or the Grandma? Depends on Where You’re From
Karen Hao | MIT Technology Review
“The researchers never predicted the experiment’s viral reception. Four years after the platform went live, millions of people in 233 countries and territories have logged 40 million decisions, making it one of the largest studies ever done on global moral preferences.”

TECHNOLOGY
The Rodney Brooks Rules for Predicting a Technology’s Success
Rodney Brooks | IEEE Spectrum
“Building electric cars and reusable rockets is fairly easy. Building a nuclear fusion reactor, flying cars, self-driving cars, or a Hyperloop system is very hard. What makes the difference?”

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#433725 This Week’s Awesome Stories From ...

ROBOTICS
The Demise of Rethink Robotics Shows How Hard It Is to Make Machines Truly Smart
Will Knight | MIT Technology Review
“There’s growing interest in using recent advances in AI to make industrial robots a lot smarter and more useful. …But look carefully and you’ll see that these technologies are at a very early stage, and that deploying them commercially could prove extremely challenging. The demise of Rethink doesn’t mean industrial robotics isn’t flourishing, or that AI-driven advances won’t come about. But it shows just how hard doing real innovation in robotics can be.”

SCIENCE
The Human Cell Atlas Is Biologists’ Latest Grand Project
Megan Molteni | Wired
“Dubbed the Human Cell Atlas, the project intends to catalog all of the estimated 37 trillion cells that make up a human body. …By decoding the genes active in single cells, pegging different cell types to a specific address in the body, and tracing the molecular circuits between them, participating researchers plan to create a more comprehensive map of human biology than has ever existed before.”

TRANSPORTATION
US Will Rewrite Safety Rules to Permit Fully Driverless Cars on Public Roads
Andrew J. Hawkins | The Verge
“Under current US safety rules, a motor vehicle must have traditional controls, like a steering wheel, mirrors, and foot pedals, before it is allowed to operate on public roads. But that could all change under a new plan released on Thursday by the Department of Transportation that’s intended to open the floodgates for fully driverless cars.”

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
When an AI Goes Full Jack Kerouac
Brian Merchant | The Atlantic
“By the end of the four-day trip, receipts emblazoned with artificially intelligent prose would cover the floor of the car. …it is a hallucinatory, oddly illuminating account of a bot’s life on the interstate; the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test meets Google Street View, narrated by Siri.”

FUTURE OF FOOD
New Autonomous Farm Wants to Produce Food Without Human Workers
Erin Winick | MIT Technology Review
“As the firm’s cofounder Brandon Alexander puts it: ‘We are a farm and will always be a farm.’ But it’s no ordinary farm. For starters, the company’s 15 human employees share their work space with robots who quietly go about the business of tending rows and rows of leafy greens.”

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Posted in Human Robots

#433594 Technology and Compassion: A ...

From how we get around to how we spend our time to how we manage our health, technology is changing our lives—not to mention economies, governments, and cities around the world. Tech has brought good to individuals and societies by, for example, democratizing access to information and lowering the cost of many products and services. But it’s also brought less-desirable effects we can’t ignore, like a rise in mental health problems and greater wealth inequality.

To keep pushing tech in a direction that will benefit humanity as a whole—rather than benefiting a select few—we must encourage open dialogues about these topics among leading figures in business, government, and spirituality.

To that end, SingularityU The Netherlands recently hosted a dialogue about compassion and technology with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The event was attended by students and tech innovators, ambassadors, members of the Dutch royal family, and other political and business leaders.

The first half of the conversation focused on robotics, telepresence, and artificial intelligence. His Holiness spoke with Tilly Lockey, a British student helping tech companies create bionic limbs, Karen Dolva, CEO of telepresence company No Isolation, and Maarten Steinbuch, faculty chair of robotics at SingularityU the Netherlands and a professor of systems and control at TU Eindhoven.

When asked what big tech companies could be doing to help spread good around the world, His Holiness pointed out that while technology has changed many aspects of life in developed countries, there is still immense suffering in less-developed nations, and tech companies should pay more attention to the poorer communities around the world.

In the second half of the event, focus switched to sickness, aging, and death. Speakers included Liz Parrish, CEO of BioViva Sciences, Kris Verburgh, faculty chair of health and medicine at SingularityU the Netherlands, Jeantine Lunshof, a bio-ethicist at MIT Media Lab, and Selma Boulmalf, a religious studies student at University of Amsterdam. Among other topics, they talked with His Holiness about longevity research and the drawbacks of trying to extend our lifespans or achieve immortality.

Both sessions were moderated by Christa Meindersma, founder and chair of the Himalaya Initiative for Culture and Society. The event served as the ceremonial opening of an exhibition called The Life of the Buddha, Path to the Present, on display in Amsterdam’s 15-century De Nieuwe Kerk church through February 2019.

In the 21st century, His Holiness said, “There is real possibility to create a happier world, peaceful world. So now we need vision. A peaceful world on the basis of a sense of oneness of humanity.”

Technology’s role in that world is being developed and refined every day, and we must maintain an ongoing awareness of its positive and negative repercussions—on everyone.

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Posted in Human Robots

#433539 This Week’s Awesome Stories From ...

ROBOTICS
Meet the Winner of Robotics’ World Cup
Editorial Staff | MIT Technology Review
“If you are under the impression that the recent soccer World Cup was won by a fine French team that triumphed over Croatia in a dramatic finale, then you were watching the wrong tournament. At about the same time, on the other side of the world in Montreal, another tournament was also under way. This was the soccer World Cup for adult-size robots.”

MOONSHOTS
SpaceX’s Moon Trip Is the Ultimate Artist Residency
Marina Koren | The Atlantic
“If SpaceX’s latest ambitions become a reality, a spaceship carrying one Japanese billionaire and six to eight artists will blast off from Earth and head for a trip around the moon sometime around 2023.”

FUTURE OF WORK
Emerging Tech Will Create More Jobs Than It Kills by 2020, World Economic Forum Predicts
George Dvorsky | Gizmodo
“The big question many of us are asking now is: Will job losses outweigh job creation in the coming years and decades? If a new World Economic Forum (WEF) report is to be believed, emerging tech will create more jobs than it destroys. At least for the next four years.”

GENETICS
Why Your DNA Is Still Uncharted Territory
Carl Zimmer | The New York Times
“If these trends continue as they have for decades, the human genome will remain a terra incognito for a long time. At this rate, it would take a century or longer for scientists to publish at least one paper on every one of our 20,000 genes.”

SPACE
Satellite Uses Giant Net to Practice Capturing Space Junk
Loren Grush | The Verge
“Along with experimenting with a deployable net, the satellite is also equipped with a harpoon that can spear objects, as well as a drag sail that can help slow down debris and make them fall to Earth faster. The plan is to see if these technologies can even work, before trying them out on future spacecraft that are tasked with cleaning up debris.”

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