If you were to pass away tomorrow, would your heirs know the passwords to access your computer or smartphone? Or, for that matter, would they know how to access your email accounts or the Amazon.com or iTunes shopping accounts you’ve set up? Would they know how to shut down […]
Many of us will accumulate vast libraries of digital books and music over the course of our lifetimes. But when we die, our collections of words and music may expire with us.
Someone who owned 10,000 hardcover books and the same number of vinyl records could bequeath them to descendants, but legal experts say passing on iTunes and Kindle libraries would be much more complicated.
And one’s heirs stand to lose huge sums of money. “I find it hard to imagine a situation where a family would be OK with losing a collection of 10,000 books and songs,” says Evan Carroll, co-author of “Your Digital Afterlife.” “Legally dividing one account among several heirs would also be extremely difficult.”
Part of the problem is that with digital content, one doesn’t have the same rights as with print books and CDs. Customers own a license to use the digital files — but they don’t actually own them.
Apple AAPL, +0.79% and Amazon.com AMZN, +0.98% grant “nontransferable” rights to use content, so if you buy the complete works of the Beatles on iTunes, you cannot give the “White Album” to your son and “Abbey Road” to your daughter.
“That account is an asset and something of value,” says Deirdre R. Wheatley-Liss, an estate-planning attorney at Fein, Such, Kahn & Shepard in Parsippany, N.J.
But can it be passed on to one’s heirs?
Most digital content exists in a legal black hole. “The law is light years away from catching up with the types of assets we have in the 21st Century,” says Wheatley-Liss. In recent years, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Indiana, Oklahoma and Idaho passed laws to allow executors and relatives access to email and social networking accounts of those who’ve died, but the regulations don’t cover digital files purchased.
Apple and Amazon did not respond to requests for comment.
There are still few legal and practical ways to inherit e-books and digital music, experts say. And at least one lawyer has a plan to capitalize on what may become be a burgeoning market. David Goldman, a lawyer in Jacksonville, says he will next month launch software, DapTrust, to help estate planners create a legal trust for their clients’ online accounts that hold music, e-books and movies. “With traditional estate planning and wills, there’s no way to give the right to someone to access this kind of information after you’re gone,” he says.
Here’s how it works: Goldman will sell his software for $150 directly to estate planners to store and manage digital accounts and passwords. And, while there are other online safe-deposit boxes like AssetLock and ExecutorSource that already do that, Goldman says his software contains instructions to create a legal trust for accounts. “Having access to digital content and having the legal right to use it are two totally different things,” he says.
The simpler alternative is to just use your loved one’s devices and accounts after they’re gone — as long as you have the right passwords.
Chester Jankowski, a New York-based technology consultant, says he’d look for a way to get around the licensing code written into his 15,000 digital files. “Anyone who was tech-savvy could probably find a way to transfer those files onto their computer — without ending up in Guantanamo,” he says. But experts say there should be an easier solution, and a way such content can be transferred to another’s account or divided between several people.“We need to reform and update intellectual-property law,” says Dazza Greenwood, lecturer and researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab.
Technology pros say the need for such reform is only going to become more pressing. “A significant portion of our assets is now digital,” Carroll says. U.S. consumers spend nearly $30 on e-books and MP3 files every month, or $360 a year, according to e-commerce company Bango. Apple alone has sold 300 million iPods and 84 million iPads since their launches. Amazon doesn’t release sales figures for the Kindle Fire, but analysts estimate it has nearly a quarter of the U.S. tablet market.
Entrusting your money to a bank once seemed strange and risky. Similarly, entrusting all of your data to a company and letting its algorithms build a detailed model of you from it might seem to be an odd or even dangerous idea, but we’ll all soon take it for granted.
A decade from now, your personal model will be more indispensable than your smartphone, and the company that provides it may well be the world’s first trillion-dollar business. So it is time to start getting acquainted with our digital alter egos—and what they’ll mean for our lives.
Today, several different companies gather information about you and use machine-learning algorithms—computer programs that build models from data—to predict what you may want to buy and figure out how to sell stuff to you.
Privacy concerns aside, this poses two problems. First, companies have a conflict of interest: They want to serve you, but they also want to make money.
For example, Google predicts how likely you are to click on an ad to show you the most profitable ones. The choice also depends on the advertisers’ bids, but you’d probably rather just see the ads most relevant to you. Google co-founder Sergey Brin says that Google wants to be the third half of your brain, but nobody wants part of their brain constantly trying to show them ads.
The second problem is that a model of you derived from fragments of your data—Google’s model based on your searches, Amazon’s from your purchases and so on—can only ever have a very limited understanding of who you are and what you want. A single model assembled from all the data you’ve ever produced would be much more accurate: The more data, the better the model. For privacy reasons, you’d want the data and the model under your control, not a third party’s.
Soon enough, facing the fog of life without a good model to guide you will seem unendurable.
To solve both of these problems, we need a new kind of company that is to your data like your bank is to your money—storing it, keeping it safe and investing it on your behalf. For a subscription fee, such a firm would record your every interaction with the digital world, build and maintain a 360-degree model of you, and use it to negotiate with other people’s models.
No major technical obstacles would prevent doing this: The main requirement would be routing your interactions through what’s called a proxy server. If all your interactions with the digital world—through your smartphone, desktop computer or any other device—pass through a “middleman” computer in the cloud en route to their destination, the middleman can record them all.
The companies that now offer to consolidate all your data somewhere in the cloud are forerunners of tomorrow’s personal databanks. Once a firm has your data in one place, it can create a complete model of you using one of the major machine-learning techniques: inducing rules, mimicking the way neurons in the brain learn, simulating evolution, probabilistically weighing the evidence for different hypotheses or reasoning by analogy. Then you can go to town with your model, which you’d own and control like you do your money, rather than letting companies such as Apple, Google and Facebook FB -3.77 % fight for control of it.
With this in mind, here’s a future suggestion for LinkedIn: Add a “Find Me a Job” button. When you click it, your digital model would “interview” instantly for all the open positions that match your specifications, interacting at high speed with human-resources departments’ recruiting models. LinkedIn could then return a list of the most promising jobs for you.
While one copy of your model is doing this, another online alter ego could be looking for a car for you, exhaustively researching the options and haggling with the auto-dealer bots so you don’t have to.
At any moment, millions of copies of your model could roam the Internet, doing all the things you’d do if only you had the time. From these, your model selects the best few options for you to choose—then learns from what you decided, making the model more accurate the next time around.
To offset organizations’ data-gathering advantages, like-minded individuals will pool the data in their banks and use the models learned from that information.
As the models improve, their interactions will become increasingly like real-world ones—just millions of times faster and in silicon. Your model will go on a thousand digital dates with each of a thousand possible spouses and rank them by how well the dates went.
Tomorrow’s cyberspace will be a society of models, a vast parallel world that selects only the most promising things to try out in the real one—the new, global subconscious of the human race.
This will all probably happen in years, not decades. Apple’s Siri, Microsoft MSFT -0.90 % ’s Cortana and Google Now all include efforts to build complete models of you from the data captured by your smartphone, and they’re making rapid progress. Like a personal assistant, they try to help you accomplish your daily tasks, either in response to your commands (Siri) or on their own (Google Now). But to do that, they need to understand you, and they’ll use any data they can to do so—from the smartphone’s sensors to your emails and calendar.
The Web pages you see every day are already the result of complex interactions among the models that content providers, advertising networks and advertisers are deriving. Learning algorithms trade against one another in the stock market. Last May, a Hong Kong venture fund named Deep Knowledge Ventures appointed an algorithm to its board, voting on investment decisions alongside the five human directors, according to Business Insider.
Today’s models don’t yet interact with us: You can’t tell them they’re wrong or ask them questions. Machine-learning algorithms are black boxes that only computer scientists can open up. But that will change as more of us realize how important machine learning is and demand a say in how it occurs.
Eventually, your model will be like your best friend, but with infinitely more patience. What will you ask it? You might not like some of its answers, but that would be all the more reason to ponder them. Your model—your digital half—might even help you become a better person.
—Dr. Domingos is a professor of computer science at the University of Washington and the author of “The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World” (Basic Books).
Death in the Digital Age: Tech Startups Help Us Cope With Mortality
How do you want to be remembered?
It’s a weighty question that we’ve all thought about at one time or another. Everybody hopes to have meaningful impact on the world while they’re here, whether that means touching the lives of millions or even just one person. That’s never going to change.
But the ways in which we prepare for death and memorialize our dearly departed are changing. And, like nearly everything else these days, technology has a hand in it. Some groups may be trying to crack the code on immortality, like Calico, a company started by Google and Apple to research how to prolong the human lifespan. Others are using software to try to solve more tractable problems.
Yes, it seems even death—or, rather, the death industry—is “ripe for disruption,” says Boston serial entrepreneur and investor Dave Balter. He is working on a stealthy startup, Mylestoned, tied to how we remember the dead.
“There’s no question that we’re in an era where death has not only become something we’re more aware [of] and comfortable [with] as individuals, but also that the industry has not evolved significantly to match how we live today,” says Balter, who previously co-founded startups in social marketing, online skills assessments, and leadership development.
He’s referring to funeral homes and the traditional custom of burying the dead in caskets, beneath a headstone. People are more “transient” these days, and it’s less common for them to live near the cemetery where their deceased relatives are buried or to routinely visit their graves, Balter says. At the same time, more people are opting for cremation, in part, he argues, because they want their lives honored in a different way, perhaps by having their ashes scattered into the sea.
“You’re seeing a major, major shift in how people think about what to do with their loved ones,” Balter says. “We’re searching for something more meaningful—something to memorialize our loved ones in the places where they had impact.”
And that’s what he’s trying to do with his new startup. It’s still early, and Balter isn’t ready to share more details about what he’s planning.
But his company is certainly not the only one hatching new ways to deal with death in the digital age. Humans have always grappled with their own mortality, and Balter thinks there’s increased interest among entrepreneurs because people are becoming more thoughtful about the value of their contributions to the world, and they’re preparing more for their eventual eulogy.
Technology is helping to “reframe what death means” to us, Balter says.
“We’re starting to see our lives so much more clearly through social media, through all these lenses,” he says.
At the same time, people are becoming more cognizant of death and its role in life, Balter says. “There’s greater awareness of what that looks like in a realm where we can all see each other’s worlds.”
Other tech startups are trying to help people prepare for their own deaths. One example is Cake, a young Boston company that participated in this year’s MassChallenge startup accelerator program. Cake developed an app that helps guide users through end-of-life planning, including giving them a checklist of recommended steps like designating a healthcare proxy and buying life insurance, and allowing them to create an online handbook of posthumous preferences and wishes for loved ones, doctors, and lawyers to carry out.
The year-old company is led by Suelin Chen, an MIT-trained materials scientist and engineer who has worked as a research assistant at Massachusetts General Hospital and directed The Laboratory at Harvard, a center for arts and sciences experimentation. Chen’s funeral playlist, according to her company’s website: “Islands in the Stream,” by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton; Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love”; and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” by Queen.
Another startup, Israel-based SafeBeyond, recently launched a service that allows users to create an online vault of important documents and messages that can be shared posthumously with loved ones.
With SafeBeyond, people can record video or audio messages or type up letters that will be released to their heirs upon a predetermined triggering event. Those triggers can be an exact date, say a child’s 18th birthday; a major life event, such as a future wedding (a trustee previously chosen by the deceased would notify SafeBeyond that the event has occurred); or when an heir visits a specified place that holds meaning to the family, such as a favorite vacation spot.
Users who leave messages behind can’t “make the sadness disappear,” but the digital relics can help loved ones “cope a little better with the fact that I’m gone,” SafeBeyond founder and CEO Moran Zur explains.
SafeBeyond is positioning its service as a sort of digital time capsule that provides “emotional life insurance,” Zur says.
Like many startups, the idea for SafeBeyond was born of personal experience. Zur, a native of Israel, was 25 when he lost his father to cancer in 2002. Four years later, as Zur was preparing to get married, his father’s absence was saddening and frustrating. There were times that he “didn’t feel like doing” a big wedding in Israel without his father, he says.
“There’s so many things that you don’t think about it, but you kind of never get a chance to discuss when you’re 25,” Zur says. “You don’t think about getting married, you don’t think about kids, you don’t think about other advice that might be needed in the most important moments. What would my father have said about that?”
That gave Zur the idea for SafeBeyond, which he put on the backburner for several years while he led a brokerage company. But in 2012, hardship struck again—Zur’s wife was diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer. Their son was 3 years old at the time, he says.
After chemotherapy failed to help, the family turned to alternative treatments that improved her health. Fortunately, she is “doing well” these days, Zur says.
Zur took his wife’s illness as a call to leave his comfortable job in the financial industry and start SafeBeyond, which is offering its online storage service for free.
“I’m doing it for her, doing it for my son as the receiver of these future messages,” Zur says. “It might be that he receives mine before he receives hers.”
Zur says he raised $500,000 in seed funding for SafeBeyond, which is based in Tel Aviv, with an outpost in New York. The company currently has six employees.
Zur says an exit for the company is not his primary concern, and he thinks the business can be sustained by charging for premium features on top of the basic free service, which gives users 1 gigabyte of storage.
But what if SafeBeyond itself dies? The company chose Amazon Web Services to host documents in the cloud, which was partly a move to provide more peace of mind that users’ messages will be preserved and disseminated after they die, even if SafeBeyond doesn’t endure, Zur says. “Our cost will be really, really small to maintain all that,” he adds.
Other services SafeBeyond offers include posting a pre-written final posthumous message on users’ social media pages and storing social media login information so that designated loved ones can access the accounts. People might not realize that without the account passwords, sites like Dropbox or Gmail won’t allow heirs to access deceased users’ accounts, Zur says. Facebook, meanwhile, has set up a legacy contact option that allows a designee to look after your account after you’ve passed away.
The fate of your social media accounts may not be as consequential as what happens to your remains or your assets. But the reality is that, for better or worse, the information about you floating around the Web could be the only thing tied to you that lives forever, at least publicly.
“If someone will go and search my name in 20 years in Google or whatever is going to be the interface, you will find some stuff about me easily, even if I’m gone,” Zur says. “Life has changed in this digital age. It can be debated, [but] from my perspective, there’s no way to be forgotten. At least take responsibility and decide how you want to be remembered.”
The guide covers everything from social media accounts to online logins for sites such as Amazon, Google, professional directories, supermarket voucher schemes and music and film sites.
People with a significant online presence could find friends and family receiving sombre and unnecessary reminders of a recent death, for example, via poorly-timed social media birthday notifications.
More importantly, unplanned digital legacies could pose potentially harmful security issues. Any digital legacy should contain a financial element, as direct debits will continue to leave a bank account until it is frozen by the provision of a death certificate.
Silver surfers are increasingly adopting the internet with nearly one in five people aged 65 to 74 using social network sites, according to the Office for National Statistics. In addition, more than half of Facebook users are over the age of 35.
And as well as social media profiles, many people store a wealth of sensitive personal information on websites and email accounts which could go unchecked on someone’s death.
Emma Myers, Head of Wills, Probate and Lifetime Planning at SagaLegal.co.uk, said it was important people consider what will happen to their digital existence when they pass away.
“Being a relatively new invention, there are not yet any substantial legal procedures in place to protect your online presence and even less still when you die,” she said.
“In the same way you would not want your loved ones falling out or being inconvenienced over a missing will when you die, it’s also imperative to plan ahead for the great internet cafe in the sky.”
The guide also advises the public to compile a secure “online directory”, detailing all active internet accounts along with requests for how each should be dealt with.
Ms Myers continued: “Given how new an invention the internet is, it’s perhaps not surprising that many people are not yet familiar with the idea of a digital legacy.
“Yet as we continue to live more and more of our lives online, it’s become increasingly important to start planning for our virtual afterlife when we pass away.
“Accounts registered with everything from social media pages, email providers, online retailers and online banking contain sensitive information that should be removed. This is especially true where banking information is involved.”
“With the internet still being somewhat of a legal grey area, we understand the importance of consumers being aware of the risks – emotional, practical and financial – of not properly setting your online affairs in order.”