Loss and technology

Sometime ago I read and article on The Verge, about the story of Eugenia Kuyda, a Russian  developer and start-upper, who created a chat-bot of a deceased friend, Roman Mazurenko.

Roman and Eugenia were very close friends, they met in Moscow in 2008, lived together in San Francisco and collaborated in the creation of various startups and projects. They were both visionaries and very attracted by new technologies and they way they can interact with our life. Roman especially, was a charismatic and bright young men, full of ideas and enthusiasm.

Deeply touched by his death (Roman was hit by a car in Moscow, in 2015), Eugenia decided to create a bot of him, by using 3000 lines of Telegram messages that he had exchanged with her and other friends throughout his life. An algorithm identifies motives and patterns in Roman’s words, and uses them to create a sort of avatar with whom you can exchange messages and chat. The avatar is thus supposed to give you answers and talk the way Roman would have done.

A part from the actual quality of the avatar, and the differences and lacks with respect to the “real” Roman, which are of course huge and unbridgeable, friends and families found a certain degree of solace in the chat-bot and a little help in the mourning process.

This story gave me really a lot to think about. We all leave daily an enormous amount of information online, which will stay there forever, and even without invoking any apocalyptic scenario, the truth is that we do not know where this information will go and what it will be used for. I’ve never really gave much thought about the implications of this with respect to death and mourning. Till 15-20 years ago we had only few pictures (physical pictures, placed in a specific physical space) and maybe an audio or video tape (again stored in an actual object) keeping the trace of a missing loved one. Now we have infinite lines of text, pictures, videos, Facebook or Twitter statements, place visited and so on and so forth. How is this going to change the way we mourn our loved ones? Is it going to help us or is it going to make the process a never ending one? Are we going to get lost in all of this material and loose touch with reality? Can and will it be used to keep a person virtually alive? Can this online-virtual person actually give a correct (even though certainly approximate) representation of the living one?

I have the immense luck of never have experienced the sudden lost of someone close to me. So I know nothing about the feelings and the struggles associated with it. And it would be quite naive of me to even try to answer those questions. What I can say, is that I am a little scared of what will remain of me once i will be gone and what can be done with it, and I am also a little scared to get stuck and trapped in a labyrinth of text and pics, should i loose someone. The future possibilities (what can be built with all this material) are actually unpredictable.

As a society, all of this is still very much a taboo. we do not speak about death and loss. But it is really important to think about it, especially how technology is shaping it, because all of this is already happening and changing our life and the way we process our feelings. And will keep changing in ways we cannot foresee. I do not know if Eugenia’s experiment is good or not, but I do know that we have to think and talk about it, because if for now it is a single episode, it could soon become a commodity without us even realizing it.

I am totally for technology and progress, but I am quite concerned about the way we accept and dive into everything so acritically and recklessly. We should learn to approach technology in a more mindful way, not diffident, but simply keeping our eyes open to what things are doing and will do to our emotional and psychological selves.