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How many Dead People on the Internet? Reflections on Alan Turing and the Imitation Game.

I notice that Facebook has just announced a new policy concerning who owns a person’s account once they die. The issue of what happens to and who owns a dead user’s accounts is a huge and growing global issue as everything goes into the cloud.

I had an employee who died about 3 years ago. I forwarded his emails to me since I didn’t want to lose business. My ex-colleague is still getting plenty of email from marketers and so on. So much so that I haven’t been able to switch off his spam filter.

I had a business partner who died also about 2 years ago. I only found out that he was deceased from an independent source. I still get emails from him, plus newsletters. I guess his colleagues kept his email and online persona going since they felt it was necessary to keep his contacts and their business.

I wonder how many people on the Internet are actually dead/ Furthermore, I also wonder at what rate this number is growing. Since people die all the time, then unless an equal number are taken off the Internet rolls, the number of people on the Internet is going to be expanding faster than the birth rate and the take-up of Internet users. Plus, the proportion of deceased users must be increasing.

This raises an awful lot of questions. How do marketers, websites and so on know when someone has died? Is there a central registry somewhere I haven’t heard of (pssst, the NSA perhaps?). What proportion of marketing emails is going to dead people? Do marketing firms still get revenues from marketing to them? What about any other website like Amazon?

And its obviously not just emails. Facebook anyone? LinkedIn? Social media generally? Maybe transaction-driven sites like the mating and hookup sites aren’t affected. But what about Pinterest and the millions of others?

So all of this has got me to thinking. Ever heard of the Turing Test? The one that sees if humans can figure out if they are talking to a computer or not? Last year for the first time the computer fooled one-third of the judges, even though there are skeptics as to how meaningful this actually was. Nonetheless AI programs are getting better by leaps and bounds. My guess is that in about 10 years only about 1 in 10 humans will be able to tell the difference between a computer program that talks to them, and a human.

So that means that I will be able to have my online identity linked to an avatar which, if you quiz it, will sounds like a real human, maybe even yours truly. So I might not be able to use the usual tests to see if this identity is still alive or forms part of the ever-expanding Deadosphere.

How long before we can upload our minds to the Internet, just like Ray Kurzweil likes to talk about? We’re getting there pretty fast as Big Data systems emerge which can reconstruct your preferences – market, personal, professional, even sexual.

It’s a short step from reconstructing your preferences to reverse-engineering your personality and then even your mind, or a reasonable simulation thereof. Once that happens, can I buy a copy from a Big Data marketer and upload it myself to my avatar? You can be dead sure that the marketers will see this as being the next huge growth market.

Could it come to the point where we routinely upload our personalities to the web and then sign the equivalent of an advance directive which tells our family what we want to do with it when we (physically) die? That each of us would have the option to leave our digital personality alive and kicking for ever more. Maybe with over-the-air updates to the personality software so my online personality becomes more and more like I really was? Could I go beyond and choose the sort of personality I never had in my earthly life but that I would wish to be remembered for?

Is that how we can choose to be immortal before we get there in physical terms? And if the Internet does indeed spawn a whole new class of immortals, will they form part of the mortal world, like some game characters do now?

Could these digital personalities buy and sell things? Would they impact the real economy? Could I choose to move up there anyway even if I am alive now because the real world doesn’t measure up? Or because I’m, just depressed and the only other option is drugs or suicide?

The list goes on. But we can see that the issue of what happens to your emails and Internet identities after you die has some unexpected dimensions. My sense is that many of these are much closer to actuality that one would normally think.

Hmm, is there a blockbuster product/startup in this...?





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