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Being Here Even When We’re Gone

At one time, when most people died the only things they left behind were a tombstone and some memories. Then photography was invented and people could leave true images of their living selves. Nowadays, we’ve got video too. Even after we pass away, our friends and relatives can see us talking, laughing and smiling whenever they want.

But what comes next? Fans of Elvis Presley or the rapper Tupac Shakur may already know the answer. Both of those now deceased performers have re-appeared on stage as holograms, singing and performing almost exactly as they did in life. This kind of technology is becoming more and more sophisticated, but science will soon offer more than simply a replay of someone’s living words and movements. Artificial intelligence (AI) will make it possible for holograms and other images to do new things, to respond to the here-and-now as the living person might have done.

So deceased grandparents will say hello to grandchildren born after their deaths. Wives be able to hold conversations with their departed husbands, or vice versa. In some ways this might seem a disturbing concept, but so did photography and film in their day. Those new technologies quickly became accepted parts of everyday life, and so will the applications of artificial intelligence. And like photography and films, they will prove to have emotional and therapeutic value too. A photograph can’t speak and a video can’t respond to the real world, but they bring back happy memories all the same.

An interactive hologram or image, on the other hand, will be powered by artificial intelligence and will be able to hold an apparently real conversation with those who are still willing. It will be able to comfort the grief-stricken, to offer advice on what the departed person would have wanted in new circumstances, and act as a kind of guide from beyond the grave.

These new developments will be here sooner than we may expect. Funeral directors won’t simply be discussing burial arrangements and types of coffin with their clients: they will be advising them how to set up their after-life holograms or stay-behind selves or resurrection bots – or whatever the generally accepted term turns out to be. Maybe there will be many different terms, because maybe there will be many ways to create an AI presence that reproduces our appearance and behaviour when we’re gone. It may even become the fashion for graves to incorporate a video-screen on which the departed person says hello to visiting friends and relatives. If that’s what people want, the funeral business will be ready to supply it.