Microsoft’s “creepy” Patent will allow us to Communicate with the Dead

Chuba Agbu

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In what appears to be a real-life manifestation of a black mirror episode, Microsoft has just been granted a patent that will allow it to, basically, digitally revive dead people. If implemented, Microsoft would use voice data, social media posts, electronic messages, and written letters relating to the specific person to create an Artificially Intelligence (AI) version in their likeness. The patent reads as follows:

“The social data may be used to create or modify a special index in the theme of the person’s specific personality. The special index may be used to train a chat-bot to converse and interact in the personality of the specific person. During such conversations, one or more conversational data stores and/or API’s may be used to reply to user dialogue and/or questions for which the social data does not provide data. In some aspects, a voice font of the specific person may be generated using recordings and sound data related it the specific person.”

This describes how a relative or loved one may communicate with the specific person (the deceased). The patent may also be useful in preserving present-day icons who may one day become historical figures. The generation of 2200 may want to experience what it would be like to talk to Elon Musk or to put in a more relatable context; it would be like us having a conversation with an AI figment of Julius Caesar. It doesn’t stop here, Microsoft in the patent has also implied that holographic models will be an added feature to give a fully immersive experience of what it would be like to interact with the deceased person. The patent details:

“In some aspects, a 2d or 3d model of the person may be generated using images depth information and or video data associated with the specific person.”  Late last year, we saw a bizarre occurrence from music legend Kanye West, who gifted his wife, Kim Kardashian with a holographic version of her late father, Robert Kardashian. Perhaps this event points to the existence of a market for novelty nostalgia-based services that this patent could exploit.

Another key aspect of the patent “The specific person may also correspond to oneself (e.g. the user training the chat-bot” implies that a digital user could train a digital replacement in the event of their death. A user could achieve this by interacting with the chat-bot to enable it to develop a deeper understanding of their personality and predict behaviour as accurately as possible.

This use of an individual’s likeness could raise some fascinating legal questions if implemented, such as whether the use of a dead man’s personality/likeness is constitutional. According to U.S copyright law, offending parties can be sued for using another person’s likeness, names, or personal attributes for an “exploitative purpose” without permission from the individual in the United States. But how do you seek permission from a dead man? The general rule is that one cannot invade the privacy of a dead person. In other words, a person cannot be sued for misappropriation of a dead person’s name or likeness unless the misappropriating took place before the person in question died.

However, existing state laws in the United States recognise postmortem rights of the deceased, particularly celebrities or individuals with “commercial value”. The duration of the right after a celebrity’s death varies, ranging from 10 years from the date of death in Washington if there was no commercial value at death, to 100 years from the date of death in Indiana and Oklahoma.

It is important to note that the term misappropriating may be difficult to qualify in this instance, particularly when you consider that the information elicited would be from voluntarily uploaded posts of the deceased.

Earlier versions of this use of a person’s likeness for revenue already exist as was seen when a holographic model of Hip Hop Legend Tupac, featured and performed hit songs on the Coachella stage in 2012.

This patent also raises quite a few ethical issues. In recent years we have seen growing concern around “deepfakes” technology, where realistic visual renderings of individuals, are used by nefarious entities to deceive a targeted audience. If one is imaginative enough, the combination of Microsoft’s patent and deepfake technology is enough to tell you all you need to know about the scale of subterfuge that is achievable; and discerning what is real and what isn’t.

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