Generative AI, such as large language models (LLMs) and image and video generators, is amplifying the phenomenon of “digital necromancy,” which involves the reanimation of the dead through their digital remnants. This technology has been used to reanimate celebrities like Bruce Lee, Michael Jackson, and Tupac Shakur, and has expanded access to these technologies to everyone. Startups like Here After and Replika are using generative AI to bring loved ones back to life for the bereaved. While some argue that this technology crosses cultural and ethical lines, sociologists studying cultural commemorative and remembrance practices believe it is more commonplace. AI startups are developing chatbots that allow people to communicate with their deceased loved ones via text, voice, and image.
Large language models (LLMs) like ChatGPT as well as image and video generators like DALL·E 2 are examples of generative AI. This technology amplifies a phenomenon known as “digital necromancy,” which is the reanimation of the dead through their digital remnants.
In the 2010s, advances in video projection (“deep fake”) technology that resulted in the reanimation of Bruce Lee, Michael Jackson, and Tupac Shakur ignited debates surrounding digital necromancy. Among others, it resulted in posthumous film roles for Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher.
The technologies used to reanimate these and other stars were previously only available to highly resourced film and music production companies, but with the advent of generative AI, access to these technologies has expanded to include everyone.
Prior to ChatGPT becoming widely known in late 2022, a user had already communicated with his deceased fiancée via email and texts using OpenAI’s LLM. Recognising the potential, several startups have emerged, such as Here After and Replika, that use generative AI to bring loved ones back to life for the bereaved.
The idea that we might regularly interact with digital simulations of the dead causes deep unease for many, who feel that this technology crosses a cultural and possibly even ethical line. It is for this reason that the dark magic of AI-assisted necromancy is seen with suspicion.
Some may be concerned about this.
However, as sociologists studying cultural commemorative and remembrance practises who have also experimented with generative AI to bring the dead back to life, we believe there is no reason to be alarmed.
Is it a new dark art or is it more commonplace?
It’s normal to maintain relationships with the deceased through writing, pictures, and artefacts; it’s a part of our lives with both living and dead people.
Likenesses and relics have long held sentimental significance for people as a way to keep the deceased near at hand. Although painting a portrait of a loved one was no longer a common way to commemorate images of them at the time, the widespread use of photography in the 19th century soon provided a substitute method of keeping the dead preserved.
Many of us have old family photos and videos that we look back on for comfort and memories. Naturally, for as long as history has been written, famous people’s likenesses, creations, or remains have been circulated to preserve them—often at their request.Religious artefacts from many cultures provide only one example.
Therefore, nothing very world-changing is happening in the field of generative AI. The ease with which the necromantic potential of AI has been implemented tells us much about how well the technology integrates with, rather than “disrupts” or “changes,” our current rituals of mourning, remembrance, and celebration.
But AI isn’t it unique?
The AI startups in this field expand on past do-it-yourself projects that used generative AI to bring loved ones back to life. Through textual content (like emails and posts on social media), speech recordings on audio files, and client-submitted photos and videos of loved ones, they train AI models that enable posthumous interaction with “them” via text, voice, and image.
Some opponents of this use of AI have expressed concern that the reanimated might be forced to say things they wouldn’t when alive and are instead acting out someone else’s script, as noted by Debra Bassett, an expert in digital afterlives. According to Bassett, there is a breach of integrity when the deceased are being transformed into “zombies.”
Of course, this is a possibility, but we should always consider each situation individually. All in all, though, we should keep in mind that we constantly envision and speak with the deceased.
During times of joy or sorrow, we think back on the words and attitudes of the people we lost, as well as the support they may have given us when it came to overcoming obstacles and reaching current goals.
For a long time, there have been useful media for this type of communion: text, images, and artefacts like priceless heirlooms or historical possessions. Recently, cameras and recording devices have made these media more widely and easily accessible.
AI startups are developing chatbots that allow people to communicate with their deceased loved ones via texts, audio from videos, and other sources.The shutterstock/Yooth
Some commenting on the peculiarities of seeing deceased people resurrected in digital contact with us contend that those interacting are actually frauds rather than the deceased at all. This is obviously extremely problematic when done covertly and exploitatively, as with the charlatans of the Victorian spiritual revival movement carrying their ouija boards.
But once more, let’s not forget that we don’t typically treat our private notes, pictures, or videos of the deceased as though they were our loved ones. Rather, we think of them or communicate with them through them as proxies, using them as conduits to their memory. It is a misconception to say that we frequently misunderstand or deceive ourselves about such media.
For this reason, general concerns about digital necromancy are greatly exaggerated. To borrow the words of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, we miss the ways in which these new technologies already speak to and resonate with what we are and do as human beings when we focus too much on their strange and sinister aspects.