"Faces in the Digital Mirror" by Troy H. Cheek on Jun 09, 2008
A recent Doctor Who episode featured characters who were ghosting. That is, even though they were dead, they appeared to still interact with other characters because a fancy bit of technology could mimic their behavior for a little while. It was an unintended side effect which supposedly happened very rarely. Naturally, it happened at every opportunity during the episode. Ghosting became an important plot point later, of course. Why this fancy bit of technology even had this ability in the first place was never quite made clear, but it's pretty easy to figure out.
Even today, technology allows deceased persons to exist as data ghosts. Your inbox doesn't automatically stop accepting incoming emails the second you shuffle off this mortal coil. Phone service isn't immediately disconnected. Answering machines still answer. With auto-billing and auto-payments, it's possible to keep utilities and services running at your home for a considerable time before someone notices the smell. The next time you're reading a web page that hasn't been updated recently, consider the possibility that the author is no longer around and only exists online as that page. Don't forget (though I try to) the people who save voicemail or other recordings and play them every day to pretend that a loved one is still among the living.
There also exists technology which interacts with other people on your behalf. My email filter (POPFile) wasn't so much programmed as taught. It started out not knowing what email should be sorted into what inbox. As I manually sorted the wheat from the chaff, it learned my preferences and got better and better at it. Very soon, it reached the point where I don't check the trash unless I have reason to believe I've missed something. Likewise, my person video recorder (SageTV) has a feature called Intelligent Recordings. Based on my past viewing history, it checks upcoming shows and records those it thinks I might like. My watching them confirms that I like them, though I can also flag them as unwanted or delete them unseen to vote "don't like" or "meh," respectively. This feature quickly reached the point where I seldom check the schedule to see if there are any upcoming shows I'd like to record. I just assume that Intelligent Recording will record them all for me.
But how can technology go from these examples to something which can speak in your voice well enough to convince your friends that you are still among the living? As I see it, it's simply the next step. What if my electronic personal assistant, equipped with speech recognition, could listen in on every conversation I had? What if it had complete access to my work schedule, appointment calendar, birthdays of people important to me, business transactions, personal correspondence, and everything else people normally use computers to track? Throw in a little speech synthesis, and it would take no time at all to train my electronic assistant to answer my phone in my own voice, ask the reason for the call, and determine if the caller was a telemarketer or someone to whom I actually wished to speak. In other words, a spam filter for my incoming phone calls.
Why stop there? If Intelligent Recording can guess what television shows I want to watch, why can't my electronic assistant reschedule an appointment? After all, it knows I normally see my doctor every few months, knows that I prefer appointments on certain days of the weeks at certain times, knows what my work schedule is, and all that. My personal assistant could easily take the call from my doctor's office, reschedule the appointment, notify the guys at work that I need a different day off, and only afterwards let me know.
As my personal electronic assistant got more and more tuned to my personality, it would sound and act more like me. It would be able to handle more and more calls, handle more and more decisions, without even having to check with me first. It could eventually reach the point where people calling wouldn't know, or perhaps even care, if they were talking to me or my assistant. The result would be the same. In fact, I wouldn't even care, because the assistant would handle things exactly the way I would anyway. Eventually, it would be more than just an assistant. It would be my avatar. It would be my other self. It would be my electronic face in a digital mirror.
I'd love to give this face a catchy name, but my two best efforts (eface and phace) have already been taken. I'll keep calling it an avatar.
As you can imagine, this avatar could become quite the data ghost after I pass on. My mother would still get phone calls on her birthday telling her how much I love her. My girlfriend would still get flowers when she's feeling blue. My bills would still be paid on time (as long as the money holds out). Even my web page might still get updated. If not for the fact that this electronic personal assistant would probably handle planning my funeral and post a notice in the obituary page of the local newspaper, people might never know that I'm gone.
In the Doctor Who episode, the ghosts fade in mere minutes. At most, it may take a day. This is in the far future. I can't see why it wouldn't be longer. Today's technology doesn't have to advance by much to create a pretty convincing facsimile of me, at least as far as phone calls and emails go. That kind of expert system should be able to continue to pretend to be me for years. In theory, I could live forever as a data ghost, even if I only ever interacted with other data ghosts.
All this avatar talk raises the interesting possibility of my avatar entering into romantic relationships with another person without my knowledge. What if a friend decided to set me up with someone? When he calls to tell me about her, my avatar picks up because I'm busy or sleeping or something. My avatar then decides to call her up and learn more about her using the same algorithms that allow it to pass itself off as me when scheduling appointments, wishing my mother happy birthday, and all the other routine stuff that I really should handle myself if I wasn't just a tad too lazy. A few thousand instant messages, emails, and computer generated video conferences later, she's in love. The next thing I know, a woman I've never even heard of before shows up on my doorstep looking to take our relationship to the next level.
The only way that could be funnier is if my avatar never actually talked to her, but rather had spent all that time developing a romance with her avatar. The woman showed up at my door wanting to know why her avatar had just scheduled her for a wedding dress fitting.
If you want a tragic ending for the story, imagine that after actually meeting me, she finds that she doesn't love me; she loves my avatar. Worse yet, she loves me, but her avatar hates my guts and talks her out of seeing me again.