Korean Mom ‘Reunited’ With Her Dead Daughter in Virtual Reality
“I Met You,” a televised documentary from the Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation, told the story of Jang Ji-sung, a mother whose 7-year-old daughter Nayeon died of an incurable disease. The program uploaded a touching clip of the virtual reunion on its YouTube page. Nayeon was digitally recreated and placed in a virtual world that Jang entered with the use of a VR headset. Jang can be seen standing in front of a massive green screen wearing her headset and gloves which appear to provide haptic feedback for a more immersive experience.
Tracey Follows explores how virtual assistants can help us survive after death. Tracey is a futurist who has become fascinated by the memories of people after they die, and in this talk she asks who and what is being memorialised - is it us, or something else altogether?
Virtual Resurrection through Artificial Intelligence
springboards for reflection
I offer some reflections on the material above from a process or Whiteheadian point of view. They are my way of making sense of the documentary and the interview with Tracey Follows. I hope that they might serve as springboards for your own reflections.
Imagine that you are Jang Ji-sung, the mother of a 7-year-old daughter Nayeon, who died of an incurable disease. And imagine further that your daughter – or someone very much like your daughter - appears to you as a virtual reality with whom you can interact, just like in the documentary. Nayeon carries with her countless memories that were part of her young life; she remembers things and can recall them to you; she exhibits all the behaviors you associate with emotions and decision-making.
Is she your Nayeon? Well, not exactly. She has a different kind of body: virtual not physical. And you’re not sure whether she really has feelings and makes decisions, or just behaves as she does. Still, you are very glad to see her.
What would Whitehead say?
Whitehead pictures the self, not as a single substance that endures through time, but as a series of actual occasions of experience, each of which inherits from predecessors with peculiar immediacy, and each of which is a subject of a sort. The self is a serially ordered society of experiential subjects.
Normally this society is housed inside a physical body: a brain, for example. It receives input from the body and initiates responses. But it is imaginable that the series could continue to unfold in some way after death, even as the body perishes; and that it can be ‘housed’ in some other setting: a computer, for example. If this is the case, your virtual daughter would be your earlier daughter in new form. This would be one version of what process philosophers call subjective immortality or, at least, subjective continuation after death. Call it Virtual Resurrection Type One.
Another possibility is that the new Nayeon merely appears to make decisions and have feelings but doesn’t really have them. She is a virtual reality without agency of her own. If this is the case, then she embodies a form of what Whitehead would call objective immortality: that is, the immortality of an earlier self as an object that can influence others but not a subject (or series of subjects) in her own right.
What is unique about this particular object – the new Nayeon – is that she is so interactive and, in her way, thoughtful and caring. This would be a different kind of virtual resurrection. Call it Virtual Resurrection Type Two.
To my knowledge, there is no way to choose between Type One and Type Two, although I imagine that people might have strong feelings one way or another. But what I do know is that the future will include virtual realities of this sort and that, in truth, they are already very much part of our world. I myself cherish the fact that I can hear my mother's voice even though she is deceased. See Virginia McDaniel. And I can certainly understand the situation of the mother, Jang-ji Sun. As I watch the scene from I Met You above, I feel the emotions, too. As does, I trust, the Compassion in whose life the universe unfolds, who I address as God. And where might God fit into this. If done for kindly reasons and used toward good ends, the very creation of Nayeon as a virtual reality would be an example of what open and relational (process) theologians call partnering with God. It would be a way of cooperating with a divine, alluring presence throughout the whole of creation, the heart of which is love. And if, by chance, the new Nayeon does in fact have emotions and make decisions, then this God would also be a companion to her experiences, feeling her feelings in a sympathetic way. If, on the other hand, the new Nayeon is “merely” an object in a virtual world, then this object, too, would affect God in some way. With AI we are entering into a new world, strange and frightening in some ways, but also very interesting and, who knows, maybe kind of beautiful. - Jay McDaniel, 2/5/2022
The Future of You by Tracey Follows
'Who am I?' is one of the most fundamental questions of all. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to answer as technology enables us to negotiate and create many different versions of ourselves....In our digital, data-driven world, Facebook gets a say in verifying who we are, science can alter our biology, and advances in AI are revolutionizing not only how we interact online but with the physical world around us. Understanding and defining ourselves is becoming confusing but, as this fascinating book argues, it is possible to embrace this new era of transformation while preserving our autonomy....In The Future of You, professional futurist Tracey Follows shows how our personal freedoms and potential will be transformed over the coming decades. From health passports, bio-hacking and relationships with machines to mind clones, digital voting, and virtual legacies beyond the grave, we need to understand these vital issues today so that we might design the future of our identity tomorrow."