Is The World Ready For “Digital Cloning” Of The Dead?

Imagine being able to virtually “chat” with a deceased friend or relative: a gift to the grieving, or a dystopian nightmare come true? With the recent acceleration in development of artificial intelligence (AI) technology like ChatGPT, the idea of a “digital resurrection” is no longer just the muse of science fiction writers. But are people ready for this brave new world?

Dr Masaki Iwasaki, an assistant professor at Seoul National University School of Law, wanted to find out more about people’s attitudes to digital cloning. He surveyed 222 US adults, across a range of ages, education levels, and socioeconomic backgrounds. 

In one section of the survey, participants were presented with a scenario in which a fictional woman in her 20s had died in a car accident. The woman’s friends and parents were considering using AI to recreate her as a digital android, but it was unclear at first whether the woman herself had consented to this in life. 

After considering this dilemma from the point of view of the deceased’s family, the participants were given one of two updates to the story: one said that the woman had expressed agreement with the idea of digital cloning while she was alive; the other said she had disagreed with the procedure.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the vast majority of survey respondents (97 percent) felt it would be inappropriate to digitally resurrect someone who was known to have disagreed with the idea. By contrast, 58 percent felt that it was okay when the person had expressed consent.

“Although I expected societal acceptability for digital resurrection to be higher when consent was expressed, the stark difference in acceptance rates – 58 percent for consent versus 3 percent for dissent – was surprising,” Iwasaki said in a statement. “This highlights the crucial role of the deceased’s wishes in shaping public opinion on digital resurrection.”

But the whole concept in general remains highly controversial. When asked about the possibility of their own digital cloning after death, 59 percent of respondents disagreed with the idea, and around 40 percent felt that it was socially unacceptable in all circumstances.

“While the will of the deceased is important in determining the societal acceptability of digital resurrection, other factors such as ethical concerns about life and death, along with general apprehension towards new technology are also significant,” said Iwasaki.

Digital clones are already here. From an AI Einstein that can answer all your burning questions about the universe, to a perfect recreation of the iconic voice of Darth Vader, people are already making use of this technology. The burgeoning use of AI to resurrect movie stars long after their deaths was one of the central issues in 2023’s long-running strike by Hollywood screenwriters and actors.

In this landscape, it’s important to better understand the public mood, and how individuals’ rights and preferences might be protected.

“It’s necessary first to discuss what rights should be protected, to what extent, then create rules accordingly,” said Iwasaki. “My research, building upon prior discussions in the field, argues that the opt-in rule requiring the deceased’s consent for digital resurrection might be one way to protect their rights.”

So, is it time to add a clause about digital cloning to your will? Maybe, Iwasaki suggests.

“For those with strong preferences documenting their wishes could be meaningful.” 

The study is published in the Asian Journal of Law and Economics.

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