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The Quick and the Dead

Columnist: Michael E. Duffy
December, 2016 Issue

Michael E. Duffy
All articles by columnist
Columnist's Blog

While we may be deeply complex individuals, our expression of that complexity is sometimes markedly less apparent.

There’s a Netflix show called Black Mirror, a series of stand-alone Twilight Zone-meets-the-digital-age stories intended by its British creator, Charlie Brooker, to “actively unsettle” viewers. Having watched the first two seasons (only seven episodes), I can confirm it delivers. Much has been made of Black Mirror’s first episode, which finds a public official forced to perform a bestial act on national television to save a life.

Based on that description, you may have no interest in the series, which would be unfortunate, since the remaining episodes are much less disturbing. And even the episode in question, while at points uncomfortable to watch, emphasizes the (near) impossibility of keeping a secret in the digital age and how the lure of spectacle compromises our morality.

The second season’s opening episode provided the inspiration for this month’s column. Titled “Be Right Back,” it centers around a service that uses the digital footprint of a deceased person to recreate them virtually so loved ones can continue to interact with them via text messages. Like many existing digital applications, the fictional service operates on a “freemium” basis. Using publicly accessible data, it creates a first version of the departed for you to try. You can upgrade to a more realistic version by providing access to the deceased’s private data (such as personal email). And then…well, I wouldn’t want to spoil it.

That episode reminded me, I’d recently scanned an article about a person who programmed a neural network to emulate a friend (who’d died abruptly), based on their text messages ( As it turns out, that person, Eugenia Kuyda, had also seen “Be Right Back.”

Kuyda is running an artificial intelligence startup in San Francisco; using texts from 10 friends of the deceased to program the neural network, Kuyda and her team created a “chatbot” incarnation of their dead friend. The contributors had mixed reviews of the result. Four refused to interact with it at all, some felt it was a poor remembrance of their friend and some were comforted by it, despite its shortcomings.

As you might expect, there are businesses operating in the “digital memorial” space. Eternime “preserves your most important thoughts, stories and memories for eternity.” According to its website (, 34,000 people have already signed up for their private beta. From various reports, it appears Eternime intends to offer “Skype chats” with the deceased, based on information (including photos and video) that they provide to the service while still alive. will provide you with a “laser printed QR code on a durable stainless steel or brass tag with a heavy-duty outdoor rated adhesive, a web page that provides a detailed memorial, photo gallery, guestbook and optional audio background and video.” The idea is that someone visiting your headstone (with tag attached) can get much more information about you by scanning the QR code with their smartphone. A “lifetime subscription”—whose lifetime?—is only $150.

A deceased person’s Facebook page can be turned into a permanent memorial upon presentation of their death certificate (presumably by their family or executor). Facebook seems to have a better chance of being around “forever” than these other guys, which is one reason to consider them. Conversely, you can also set it up for your page to be removed entirely upon your death.

What, exactly, is required to produce a realistic simulation of a person? I hope it’s more than our texts, tweets and Facebook posts, but really, how much more is it? While we may be deeply complex individuals, our expression of that complexity is sometimes markedly less apparent. To quote the article, “An uncomfortable truth suggested by [ Kuyda’s ] bot is that many of our flesh-and-blood relationships now exist primarily as exchanges of text, which are becoming increasingly easy to mimic.”

People have always had the option to write an autobiography, retelling the important events of their lives and, more important, explaining why they chose as they did and enumerating their hopes and regrets. Not many people write them. Most are content to be remembered by the stories that show them in their best light.

Candidly, most of us are forgotten after a generation or two, when those who actually met us in real life are themselves deceased. Digital “immortality” is merely another way we rage against the dying of the light, and will only last as long as someone else is there to pay the electric bill. Of course, that just begs for the invention of the solar-powered headstone, complete with 15-inch video display, Bluetooth audio and 25 terabytes of non-volatile storage.

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