The Digital Transformation of Mourning with ‘Grief tech’

Morbid though it may seem, there is a new tech-enabled preoccupation with preserving legacies, capturing memories, and giving us something to hang onto after our loved ones have passed.

The desire to honor and remember the dead has remained constant throughout history. In the Ancient World, art and literature were used. In a bizarre, more contemporary update, tattoos are now being preserved as wall hangings. But it is in the area of digital technology that we are being forced to have new conversations on death and confront the uncomfortable realities of our own mortality.

By 2030, one in six people on the planet will be aged 60 years or over and they will be more comfortable using tech than any previous generation. Enter the new age of end-of-life planning – in a digitized world. Numerous apps now exist to help us plan our last goodbyes, convey messages and words of wisdom we want to be used at our funeral, and itemize instructions right down to what magazine subscriptions need to be canceled.

Capturing memories is also being made easier. Advancements in Artificial Intelligence (AI) see robot companions not just interacting conversationally with older people around their day-to-day needs, but also helping them record and share key events in their lives.

In the latest development, ‘grief tech’ is emerging as a new category with people looking to create posthumous digital presences of their loved ones. Experts can create holograms of late relatives, deep fake tools can animate faces of departed family members in photos, and non-fungible token (NFT) replicas of favourite possessions can be stored on blockchain platforms.

Technology now even makes it possible to continue having conversations with a loved one after their death and to retain a sense of their presence. AI trained on data − captured while the person is alive − is able to mimic the body language, voice, conversational style, and facial expressions of the deceased. And immersive virtual reality alongside multisensory stimulations allow us to smell the perfume and feel the touch of loved ones on our skin.

As with all early releases, there are limitations. Clones might sound like someone you love, but their answers are impersonal and generic. Recounting memories won’t replicate a healthy, functional relationship between two people. Some critics argue that conversing with digital versions of loved ones could prolong grief and foster delusion. Others just find it creepy.

Leaving avatars of ourselves to live in digital eternity also raises some ethical worries. New processes and norms around consent, privacy, and misuse would be needed if the practice becomes mainstream. On the upside, it could force new reflections on how we live our day-to-day lives, while greater consciousness of how AI learns from our actions to create our posthumous personae might prompt better behavior.

Looking further ahead, a US company is cryopreserving the bodies of 200 humans and nearly 100 pets – waiting for the day science is able to bring the dead back to life. Until then, we must content ourselves with holding stilted conversations with our dear ones’ avatars − and agreeing on where to hang their framed tattoos.

By Caroline Halton, a Strategist and Futures Thinking Practitioner and a member of the Institute for Futures Research (IFR) Scanning team at Stellenbosch Business School.