This is a raw, unedited transcript of the Dot Dot Dot Conversation “Death in the Digital Age”
You can listen to the partial recording here.
Laurie Segall 00:00
Our weekly talk from Dot Dot Dot Media and we cover technology through the human lens and a little bit of background on me. I’ve been covering technology for over, God I think over 12 years, maybe, so I think in tech ears like that they’re like dog ears so that makes me feel pretty old. But we have a really fascinating topic tonight we’re talking about death in the digital age. And I’ve been obsessed with this topic, dating back to when you know God dating back to when I did a show at, oh good records, they’re too high. And you know I did for folks joining the room, you know, the inspiration for some of this, this topic is, I did a show at CNN I was at CNN for over a decade, as our senior tech reporter and I did a show. It was all about death in the digital age and I interviewed a woman who her friend passed away her best friend, and she decided to bring him back to life in a sense, through artificial intelligence and using, I think it was something like, all of their friendship data all of their text messages their Facebook data all of their quote life data and if you think about how much life data we leave behind. She was able to create what she called a Roman bot, an AI chat bot, which it was just such a fascinating topic and it was so emotional and there were so many ethical issues associated with it and we actually ended up creating a Laurie bot, which was fascinating too and it got me thinking, you know so much about, I think about this, this topic about death in the digital age, and all the life we have online and what that means about our death so all of that to say we have a great panel tonight, of folks who are really focused on this topic and we’re kind of at the at the forefront of it. So maybe we can just start by by intros. You know, you know, Rick our view record if you want to introduce yourself, you’re the CEO of good trust and you guys are you launched around a pandemic and you guys are doing some, some stuff in this space so if you want to just give a little bit of your background.
Rikard Steiber 02:14
Absolutely. Can you hear me.
Laurie Segall 02:15
Rikard Steiber 02:15
All right. Hey everyone, great to great to hear you so to speak, my name is Rikard Steiber, so I’m, I’m a tech executive in Silicon Valley, I came over here with Google, I ran marketing for all products in Europe and then our ads business globally. And I’ve been, you know, working with streaming services eSports launching Virtual Reality stores and subscription services around the world and then my father passed away early last year and had some friends who died in COVID and I was sucked into this thing what happens to your digital stuff when you die. And as it turns out, no one has any idea. And we did a lot of studies around here in the US, and it turns out that when you think about your, your email and your documents and your online banking and insurance and domain names and crypto and your social media and your photos and you know all the things that we have online, if you will get hit by truck today. Do you think that your family and loved ones will find all of your stuff. And the answer is probably not all of it. And then the other thing is that even if they know you have an Apple phone, even if they know that you probably have photos in your iCloud. Would your partner or your mom, be able to contact, Apple and get the photos out, and the answer is probably not because it’s super complicated might require a court order and things like that so that’s why we can have started. Good trust to solve this problem because there’s like 30 million dead people on Facebook today with live profiles sending birthday reminders they’re on LinkedIn, they’re, you know they’re having your reviews on on Open Table, you know, they’re everywhere. So there needs to be a better solution for managing not just physical end of life but also digital end of life so that’s kind of that’s kind of where we are, we’re working really hard to kind of come up with ideas that help solve this problem from making sure that you have a wheel, making sure that all of your stuff is organized, and that you know if something happens to you. Your loved ones will find it.
Laurie Segall 04:15
I mean I got to say, just just hear you, because let’s not, you know let’s let’s get over that number, you said 30 million dead people on Facebook. Yeah. I mean, what an extraordinary number and how many people a day do you estimate are dying on Facebook.
Rikard Steiber 04:33
So, so we estimate that there’s 150,000 people dying every year, so every day in the world, and you know there’s just south of 3 million here in the US which means that, assuming that Facebook has the market share that we know it has them, most likely there’s like at least 20,000 people dying every day on Facebook. And I can assure you that those accounts, don’t, don’t get really managed So Facebook has this great feature called Legacy contact and Google has enough inactive account manager, but no one really knows about that. And so, so typically this is, this is not really done today. So, it’s a significant backlog of things that needs to be done.
Laurie Segall 05:21
Yeah, I mean essentially Facebook and so many of these social networks because I think about I started covering technology over a decade ago and the rise of so many social networks like Facebook and Twitter and to a degree, many of them will become digital graveyards. Right and so and so what do we do and we can get into this later, because I know last time I spoke to you on the phone I’ve been obsessed with this idea that, you know, the, the new grave robber, or these hackers, these kind of digital. Digital grave robbers and so we’ve got to figure out a way to you know to sort our, our data after we die, or for our loved ones and so I think it’s super fascinating what you guys are doing and we’ll get into the specifics of it But Daniel, you know you. We have a little bit in common which is you are former journalists, you are a storyteller, and you’re also working with Rikard on this project so do you want to give a little bit of of your background.
Daniel Sieberg 06:16
Sure. Thanks Laurie and it is great to be with all of you. Yes, we share a history at CNN, and after that I covered science and technology for for CBS and then I shifted away from being a journalist and worked at Google for several years and then went into entrepreneurship about four years ago, met Ricard we co authored a book called Digital legacy and started building good trust and I think part of the reason Laurie that maybe you and I and probably others on this call, share this kind of passion for the subject of death in the digital age, is when you’re at that intersection of technology and storytelling, you can’t help but think about what happens to all of it when anybody passes away, and it’s such a connective tissue for humans universally, it’s not unique to us here in the United States, and of course we know that we’re all connected now in so many different ways we’re all using devices in similar ways we use the same social media platforms. You know, so we’ve evolved as a, as a species, if you will, to the point where we live and die online. And what does that look like what should it look like, and it’s a lot of what we spend our time doing with good trust is as Rickard alluded to, so excited to get into this with everybody.
Laurie Segall 07:39
And then Adam guide you have such a strange and fascinating background. And just, just looking at you guys just, you guys have some announcements today so you know I think maybe the most high profile thing you’ve done that, folks on this call might have heard of, I don’t know if anybody saw the, the gift that Kanye gave to Kim Kardashian which was this holographic image of her father who had passed away, it was just this surreal god it was so emotional. I was just watching it and I was just thinking, oh my god this is so fascinating and so I’ll get into to, you know, we have you get into exactly what that was but your background is creating almost these digital humans and these hologram projects but tell us in your own words, a little bit about, about who you are.
Adam Donen 08:37
Absolutely. Laurie marvelous to be here so I’m a, I suppose director composer and now I suppose accidental technologist. Um, I’ve always been somewhat obsessed with the problem of what on earth being an AI means generally, and particularly in the digital age, and more particularly what it means to be experienced as human so I’ve worked I’ve worked, I mean historically of years on a number of works like creating the word, the world’s first fully holographic drama which was 450 people appearing as holograms and an empty stage, and various things along those lines, and then also worked on many digital resurrections, effectively, bringing the sorted performers, and people on back to appear in certain circumstances for certain things, but most recently, by which I mean yesterday. My company launched a synthetic reality divisions synthetic reality.ai, which creates digital humans works in digital resurrections and is more generally both technologically and in terms of thought just a place where all the thorny problems around this can be explored, on a practical basis as well as purely on an intellectual.
Laurie Segall 09:55
I mean, I hear digital resurrections and all this kind of stuff so I’m going to start to all of you guys with just, I guess a basic question which is, do you think death can be disrupted my own and anyone feel free to weigh in. Yeah, Adam, go ahead.
Adam Donen 10:12
Laurie Segall 10:14
No. Okay, so we die, we really die AI is not gonna bring us back to life
Adam Donen 10:22
My short, my short answer would be no, my longer answer would be on, if we are talking about other people’s experience of what death means of what the death of somebody else means, cannot be changed and changed extensively, then I would say yes and by all means, but those are two but they’re two very different things there’s what is my own experience of my own death. And there is, what is my experience of other people’s death and the problem of death and the problem of grieving. I think it’s primarily a problem of me worrying about my own death, but rather, either, A, my worrying about my own death. For others, or be my worrying about the death of others, or me, if that makes sense. Sure,
Rikard Steiber 11:06
I’m happy to chime in here. I, you know, in the book that me and Daniel wrote there is this little quote around that you, you cannot die twice, the first time is when you die physically. The second time you die is when someone, don’t remember your name anymore so that the last time someone mentions your name, then, then you die. The second time. And I do think that, you know, with your digital life, has the potential to live forever in cyberspace and I think you know what we, one of the products that we have with good trust is a vault where you can have, you know you have all of your accounts, you know social media photos you will have your email, you cannot connect all the things that you have today. And I do think that, you know, using using machine learning and artificial intelligence, it will be able for you to tap into that data Medicaid, you know, accessible for the, you know, think of that avatar that that Adam created that you can kind of talk to digital grandma and you know you can ask her about the vacation in Mexico and she will say that she loves Mexico and bring up the photos from from the trip, etc. So do you think that you will be able to live forever in terms of your your memory of of digital grandma in this case, I do think that there are some people, you know, looking at, you know, moving your consciousness so that you actually will live forever. I think that’s probably a little bit a few more years out there but I do think that death is being disrupted in the sense that it will still die, but our memories will live on in new shapes and forms and I do think that there will be interactive memories, and in some, some future you will probably be discard your body and move it on to something else.
Daniel Sieberg 12:51
Yes, I will just add to that, that, you know, there, there is this concept around immortality, that we all are fascinated with the idea that people can somehow, you know, live forever if you will, and that’s sort of nothing new to, to, you know, people of our generation. It’s been something that’s really fascinated humans, maybe forever. But I think in terms of the disruption of death, that’s happening is maybe that legacy side in that, you know, today we use sites like ancestry or my heritage or other places to try to capture what it is that matters about us or our family or relatives, and ideally pass that on pet pass on whatever it is that we want to kind of share with our children and grandchildren and so on. And when you think about the limited amount of data or information or knowledge of these people that are there, you know we’re talking, in some cases with my own family we’re talking about a handful of black and white photos and maybe some letters and you know you’ve stumbled across something that’s a bit more meaningful that they’ve created some video or something but it’s it’s pretty limited in terms of kind of recreating that person for future generations. So, we’re really talking about, you know 10x thing or 100x thing, when you think of all of the data that we all create every single day. And what could be turned into something meaningful. I mean there’s a signal to noise challenge with all of it but that you can really start to capture that person’s life in a way that feels much more substantive.
Laurie Segall 14:25
In what sense like and so and so, I mean all of you guys, it sounds like Adams really worked on this, and has a pretty tangible example and, and you guys record, Daniel both talked about this like we could envision a world where in the future, you know, instead of looking at these black and white photos of our ancestors on ancestry.com I’m envisioning a world where we can, through different type of technology we’re looking at Deep fakes we’re looking at all this type of stuff we could speak with our, our relatives, we could using artificial intelligence, maybe have a conversation with them based on what they would have said and I’m sure God we’re going to get into some weird ethical issues there but, is that correct me if I’m wrong but it almost sounds like you’re talking about creating social network of your ancestors to some degree.
Rikard Steiber 15:16
I mean, today let me just tell you what, what, where we are today. So today, one, one of the functions we have is that you can take one of those photos and we use artificial intelligence for the photo to cannot come alive like in in Harry Potter movie. Late later this fall. You will also be able to have the photo speak to you. So it’s kind of taken the first sort of baby steps towards the vision of, of having digital grandma. I think the other thing we we have which is kind of interesting, we have this digital time capsule where you can pre record a message then this gets delivered in the future, or after you have passed away so you can kind of send the video greeting from from beyond the grave. And I think those are those are kind of the establishing baby steps towards something which is much more sort of natural language, interacting with, you know, a person. Then so we’re not we’re not really there yet, but it’s the tech is there. I think the data is there. The question is, do we, do we want to talk to our ancestors this way, and I think we do.
Adam Donen 16:28
Laurie Segall 16:29
Sorry, go ahead, Adam,
Adam Donen 16:31
I’m so, I mean I certainly agree with you and I’m indeed my arm we are ourselves involved in what I suppose you call the digital time capsule indeed we’re working with an artist at the moment, um, who is somewhat long in the tooth, and has the most beautiful catalogue of music, which he’s capturing as a series of live concerts in order that he can continue touring posthumously, which is just one of the many ways, obviously that one can time capsule in a very specific situation. I can tell you is because we are working a lot with the question of how can somebody who is resurrected, talk to talk to a person in the present some of the challenges that I find very interesting, are precisely that we have a lot of different ways of speaking to different people there, for example, I know I know nothing about the Brit on the Roman Bartow indeed Laurie the box that was graced the back of you, but I would imagine that. Well I know that a series of text messages and creating and creating a date, a database a word bank as it were, of somebody who’s spoken to you in the register that they speak to you, is far less of a challenge and indeed something that we work with them the problem, which is a factorial one of something that I suppose is the equivalent of if you imagine going to a party with two groups of friends that don’t usually see each other. Register for how you speak in those different circumstances, And then, to be harvesting data of how you speak in those two different circumstances for a resurrection, not knowing, to whom you’ll be speaking under what circumstances, creates a strange Frankenstein effect. And something that I find by that quite apart from ethical questions doesn’t to me or certainly doesn’t to be at the moment feel anything like a human or not like a human but like that human, if you understand.
Laurie Segall 18:29
I actually think it’s such a great point. And, you know, having had the experiences. Personally I think God there is nothing more there was out of all the experiments I’ve done. I’ve always been willing to kind of throw myself into the fire a little bit for technology reporting right but this was so personal, right I gave this woman who was a brilliant technologist, you know privacy aside I gave her my text messages with my best friends and my family, for the last, I think I would say five or six years in my life, and in she you know I was a been a relatively public figure for for 10 years and she so she took Facebook and Twitter and all of that data and then all these text messages. And what came out I would, I would like to say it was like me on my worst days Adam it with no context, and a bit of a Franken bot. It was saying some weird things that were a little out of context, but in a sense it did capture me now, so then I think about okay now down the in the future. And this is coming right when you could add details you could add my voice, you could put my moving picture on it. Wow this is really fascinating, you know, and at the time we had my boyfriend, play with it and we asked him kind of how would you feel playing with it and of course my boss was saying all sorts of crazy things to him but then of course, my boss said something like you know I really miss you and it was just as deeply emotional thing and so it was just fascinating to see how much emotion this type of technology could get and what this meant for the grieving and the mourning process and so what we need to think about as we code, the future of death, or maybe as you kind of say, mourning or grieving, right, like what data set are we going to use, if in fact we’re going to be doing this and I have a feeling we are going to be doing this it’s already being done in some capacity so I think it’s a really great point. I would love if you would explain, because, you know, I think maybe one of the most emotional things that I’ve seen is what you did with the car, I guess it’s the right terminology is the Kardashian hologram and what you did for Kim Kardashian for Kanye for the birthday, could you explain exactly what what Kanye became to you guys, he said I want you to recreate Kim’s lost Father, what was your reaction. And then what happened
Adam Donen 20:52
So if the resurrection metaphor be extended a little bit, a fair bit of what happened there, I suppose really does necessarily belong under the seal of the confessional. But,
Laurie Segall 21:05
But isn’t clubhouse kind of like a confessional?
Adam Donen 21:09
But I said, Well, certainly I, I think what is what is fair to say about that is that the meet the immediate reaction that I had and indeed that my producer, that My dear producer Daniel Reynolds said is that there are all sorts of ethical questions generally but any ethics that doesn’t have love that Todd has no ethics worthy of speaking its name, and that anything that is that is done by a man for the woman that he loves because he thinks that will make her happy, is something that, if it can be done should be done, and that we thought was simply an absolutely beautiful gesture in strictly technical terms, what I’m one of the challenges that was posed by by that digital recreation, is that in terms of the creation of face of faces and particularly moving faces one of course is working with datasets of materials that are available, and the availability of materials of Robert Kardashian was a lot more limited, and then a lot of them a lot of other people need that we’re working on working with at the moment, so that’s great. I mean, if I’m allowed to if I’m allowed to get into the weeds a little bit. In, in terms of the training of face, or facial gestures of particularly I mean frankly what for me is the most important thing which is, if a person is smiling and smiling at you, it needs to be their smile, rather than simply a smile. This obviously isn’t true if it’s somebody from 150 years ago but to be honest, you don’t know what, what their smile was like, but it is so if it’s somebody in the present and is your father. And that was really, really important. And, but we worked with the datasets available interviews available and speeches available in order in order to construct something that was able to, to, to deliver this speech supposed to be delivered at that event. The other thing that I think was actually quite clever about it in terms of the problem of registers that I described earlier, is of course, though this was private, it was a private event, rather than a one to one experience which of course means that one is using the register that one uses when one makes a public speech, public speech with limited guests and that made it a whole lot more possible to be capturing the way that a person speaks, and the way that their gestures are and the way, if you like that they look at you. And it’s the it’s the sort of things which are, I suppose, that they demand technological solutions, but they are fundamentally problems of the human spirit and the particularity of human character that are the things that I and indeed we are, are most interested in most interested in capturing most interested in finding ways to accurately render, which is what’s important to us.
Daniel Sieberg 24:08
I would just add, I feel like it’s fascinating to hear you talk about this Adam because I think many of us have seen that rendering of Robert Kardashian and I think some of the accuracies is in the eye of the beholder. Right, I mean, if, if you Laurie your example of, you know, your reaction to the, to the bot that was created, of you, you probably had one reaction to it, other people maybe felt differently, you know, of course, we all have, maybe sometimes a bit of a creepy versus a cool kind of a sense with these things but when Rikard was referring to the good trust memories that we, that we offer to people so you upload a photo and it animates. You know, what we’ve noticed is that the person who, if it’s a picture of you, for example, you have one sort of way of judging its accuracy because you see yourself every day and you know what you look like. And, you know, other people might say, Oh yeah, that really does look like you or, you know, could be the other way around. But for people who are grieving, and I remember when my father lost his, his wife, he would have taken anything of her. And it’s sort of, you know, the accuracy of it or the, you know, wasn’t super important to him, he just wanted fragments of her life to be, you know, to still be in his life. So, you know, it does come down to sort of who’s looking at it and, and why. And I think it’s tough to when we’re still alive and you know you’re looking for a course you’re still alive and well and looking at this but for other people if you passed away, it might be a very different experience for them.
Laurie Segall 25:39
Rikard Steiber 25:39
I have a question for you, Adam. I mean one of the things we’re looking at now is having these photos that can, You know, talk back to you. So when we were looking at the the Robert. And what he was going to say what I mean if you could have a generic kind of service where you know photos could could give a message to their loved ones what what would you have them say?
Adam Donen 26:05
So, I think that I think there’s two very separate questions and I think that I would if I may rather answer the second than the first of them. I think that, um, for, I think the for a generic service, I mean, frankly, exactly as you said, And exactly as I was hinting at earlier on. I couldn’t agree more that what is most important is the experience of the people who receive who are receiving the message. Since by definition, it’s not about the person in the photo at that point. And I can’t really answer anything other than that, which would make the people receiving the message, feel like they were experiencing that person and give them the warmth and give them the sense of continuation basically give them that. That which, at that stage they need, I think that it’s a very different case for people who, for the distant past, and indeed I really, I do admire the service that you have to be clear. I think that for people in the distant past, it is a lot easier for something to be a lot more generic than for something of someone of someone that you have known. And I think that word banking and the studying of messages of people who are existing now and indeed the creation of digital data banks are important thing for precisely that reason. In order to be able to subsequently give that real simulacrum of yourself for people that you’ve known. Does that make sense.
Rikard Steiber 27:41
Yeah, I think so. Thanks.
Laurie Segall 27:44
I guess my question would be, and so maybe let’s go back to the Robert Kardashian hologram so were you. Obviously that was something that was a pet, a very carefully crafted message I’m assuming, Kanye potentially picked out or someone must have really picked out for Kim to hear. Now in the future, you know, is it going to be a really carefully crafted word bank, or can we envision what I think this is what Eugenia who is working on Roman bot was talking to me about which is artificial intelligence that looks at all your, your data, and is able to kind of predict what you would have said. Is that too futuristic? Is that something we can envision happening in the future could, you know, could my you know my distant relatives when I’m much older be looking and having a conversation with me based on what my data says I would have said?
Adam Donen 28:43
May I be horrifically cynic to you?
Laurie Segall 28:47
Adam Donen 28:50
I think that it is perfectly possible that AI can be constructing, as it were, what you would have said, and I think perfectly possible that people will be very happy to receive what they feel, and by that you would have said. I don’t actually think it’s what you would have said.
Laurie Segall 29:08
Adam Donen 29:09
I think that one of the great problems, one of the fascinating problems, is precisely the problem of context and the problem of time. Which is that it is easy to, or it is not easy but it is possible to understand the way that we speak, and the way that we speak in a particular period of history with all the social circumstances around us and all of those things, dumped us into a new into a new period with new problems. And it’s very hard to predict, in the sense that, I mean, with despite an incredible trove of his writing, it would be very difficult for us to say with any meaningful confidence, whether or not Shakespeare in his literature was a feminist of his period, but whether Shakespeare would be a feminist today if you were to ask him a question along those lines if you like. And I think to some extent that’s the problem that one gets one gets into, not so much the formation of words, and the way that we construct sentences as much as the way that we construct meaning because meaning is not just created by us. It’s also created by the world around us and that changes over time.
Laurie Segall 30:17
That’s a great point. I want to also welcome Darren, to the stage and Darren if you want to introduce yourself, you’re the founder and CEO of After Cloud. So if you want to tell us a little bit about yourself and if you have questions for folks please jump in.
Darren Evans 30:32
Hi, Laurie. Very, Very pleasure than pleased to be here with everyone. Thank you Caroline Daniel Adam and Ricard it’s actually fascinating listen to your perspectives, it’s, it’s a really really interesting topic. I just, just to give sort of some context. My journey started a little over two years ago through the death of my mother in law, a much loved grandmother who, after the funeral, we very very realized quite quickly that there was very little in the form of digital content, that kind of represented her life. You know, just going through family photo albums, albums. We didn’t really have the answers and the knowledge about family history anymore, and I think when someone dies that that’s that’s gone it’s lost forever. So it’s my son actually who’s 11 at the time said that you work in technology. I’ve been working in technology for 20 plus years providing technology solutions to health and social care providers in the UK. He said, you know, can we not do something that can assist people in a similar situation. And that’s kind of the lightbulb moment really for me and I started speaking to people across the industry sector and realize that there’s lots of clinical systems out there for people, predominately at the time in end of life in palliative in a palliative state or receiving palliative care, quickly realized that actually is for everybody. I mean, legacy and memory care and life work and everything that we can do now to play forward is for everybody. And that really was the start of after cloud
Laurie Segall 32:16
Fascinating, and, and I’m curious, you know Daniel in regard to like I want to get in, you know, we talk a lot, I think we’ve been talking kind of futuristic and, and, you know, what’s kind of could be coming down the pipeline and that’s the stuff I always really love but I really do think and we talk about Dan you just touched on this dude just these, you know what’s right in front of us, which is, we’re going to talk about having a death in your family and feeling so incredibly personal not really knowing and seeing this big problem which is all these digital assets that are just kind of out there and loosen the tech companies aren’t doing enough and this being a real problem and also you see a real opportunity here as someone who has a successful tech person it’s interesting that you kind of take on depth. You know, so if you could give us a sense of what exactly do if someone signs up for the service, what exactly are you asking them to do, what exactly are they getting and how are you encouraging people because I will say death isn’t something, even though I think COVID-19 really made us think about this in a new way it’s not exactly something. Young people are excited to go, you know, sign up for this type of service, immediately, and so how are you encouraging folks to do it.
Rikard Steiber 33:33
Yeah. Thank you. Yeah no I think no one really wants to.
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