Why death may not be so final in the future

Why death may not be so final in the future

Why death may not be so final in the future

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Every day, it seems, our lives become a bit less tangible. We’ve grown accustomed to photos, music and movies as things that exist only in digital form. But death? Strange as it sounds, the human corpse could be the next physical object to vanish from our lives.

Within a couple of decades, visiting deceased friends and relatives by traveling to a grassy gravesite may seem as quaint as popping a videotape into your VHS player. By then, our whole experience of death may be drastically different.

If you believe Ray Kurzweil, an outspoken futurist and the director of engineering at Google, computers will soon match the capabilities of the human brain. At that point, our consciousness will become intimately mingled with machine intelligence, leading to a kind of immorality.

“We’re going to become increasingly non-biological, to the point where the biological part isn’t that important anymore,” Kurzweil declared in 2013 at a conference predicting the world of 2045. “Even if the biological part went away, it wouldn’t make any difference.”

But you don’t need to take such speculative leaps to see that the way we deal with death is already in the midst of a wrenching transformation. In 2015, for the first time ever, more people in the U.S. were cremated than buried, according to the National Funeral Director’s Association.

Crowded urban cemeteries, along with a new eco-friendly cremation method known as alkaline hydrolysis, promise to continue the trend. By 2030, the association predicts, less than one-quarter of the dead will receive traditional casket burials. The rest will end up…well, that’s the question.

Avoiding death obsolescence

With the changes in how we handle the departed come changes in how we remember them.

In the futuristic Ruriden memorial in Tokyo, human remains are packed behind walls of glowing Buddha statues. When visitors swipe a key card, a wash of colorful LED lights illuminate the location of their dearly departed.

Image: Koukokuji temple head priest Yajima Taijun demonstrates a prayer ritual inside the Ruriden columbarium

Elsewhere, funeral companies are promoting tombstones embossed with QR codes. Scanning them on your phone will call up a related video or web page. That approach prompts awkward giggles from Megan Rosenbloom, a leader in the death-acceptance movement and founder of a series of associated events that she calls Death Salons.

“Do you have a QR code reader on your phone?” she asks. “A century from now, will anyone even have any idea what that is?”

That’s a key issue for death in the digital age: Software goes out of date quickly, but memorials are meant to last forever. Today even keeping track of who is here and who is gone is a challenge. At some point you’ve probably had the unnerving experience of receiving a Facebook reminder to celebrate a birthday of a friend who is no longer alive.

A different kind of second life

Entrepreneurs are rushing in to solve this problem of “digital death curation.”

A site called the Digital Beyond maintains a list of dozens of companies that handle everything from closing out social media accounts and maintaining permanent cloud-based obituaries to creating interactive online memorials. Many of them allow you to post posthumous text and videos, or even to send scheduled messages to your loved ones long after you’re gone.

If the concept sounds creepy, it may be that you haven’t adapted yet to the fast-changing culture. “I think it’s all positive,” Rosenbloom says. “I don’t want to take up permanent real estate in a cemetery, but I do want to be remembered. Physical, virtual: the more the merrier.”

There’s an old joke that on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog. An updated version of that might be that on the internet, no one knows you’re dead. Chatbots — computer programs that emulate a person’s conversational style — could keep your digital self talking long after your physical self has stopped breathing.

Russian startup called Luka has created a chatbot that simulates conversations with Prince. It can take on many other guises as well. Luka’s co-founder, Eugenia Kuyda, programmed a bot to mimic a close friend who died in 2015.

Taking the idea a step further, computer scientist Hossein Rahnama of the MIT Media Lab is developing what he calls “augmented eternity.” It would mine all the information about a dead person to create a detailed virtual presence. His nominal goal is to simulate famous historical figures as an educational tool, but the same approach could be applied to any person.

Brain in the cloud

Rahnama’s big-data approach to artificial intelligence parallels the way that researchers at IBM taught their Watson artificial intelligence platform how to think like a person. Six years ago, Watson famously defeated Ken Jennings to become the first machine Jeopardy champion, in large part by assimilating complex cultural knowledge.

Kurzweil thinks we’ll follow a similar path to the Singularity, the hypothetical time (around 2029, by his estimate) when the great blurring between humans and computers will occur. If he’s right, questions about what to do with the body at death will then become largely irrelevant.

“We can create bodies with nanotechnology, we can create virtual bodies in virtual reality,” Kurzweil says. “I think we’ll have a choice of bodies; we’ll certainly be routinely changing our parent body in virtual reality.”

Many scoff at Kurzweil’s vision, questioning not only its technological feasibility but also its philosophical desirability. Fantasizing about immortality keeps people from living their best lives right now, Rosenbloom argues. “It feeds into death denial. When there’s no longer a deadline on your life, it takes away a lot of the motivations that we have in our life.”

Like it or not, some forms of digital afterlife are here already, and more elaborate ones are on the way. Just as today’s kids have never laid hands on a VHS cassette, so they may soon find it strange that anyone ever traveled to a distant graveyard rather than activating a virtual memorial experience they can call up anywhere, anytime.

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Is Your Digital Life Ready for Your Death?

Is Your Digital Life Ready for Your Death?

Is Your Digital Life Ready for Your Death?

Click here to view original web page at Is Your Digital Life Ready for Your Death?

You’ve probably thought about what will happen to your finances, your possessions and maybe even your real estate when you die. But what about your Facebook account? Or your hard-drive backups?

For the past two decades, most of us in the modern world have gradually shifted our central living space online. That’s 20-ish years of documenting our real-life experiences while also creating entirely new versions of ourselves in countless places online.

These digital lives are basically immortal, so you may as well figure out while you’re still alive what will happen to them after you’re gone.

There are two main things to consider: What will happen to your accounts and what will happen to the data contained therein. For example, you can give someone authority to delete your Google account and to download all your photos stored there after you die.

It’s a grim thought, but like writing a last will and testament, this has become just another part of death preparation.

Many online spaces offer some form of death planning. But this is still a relatively new concept, and some of the most popular destinations on the internet don’t give users a way to plan for their death. In that case, it’s best to establish a plan now with a trusted loved one.

For the websites and services that do offer help, here’s what to know.

Whom do you trust to mind your central online presence after your death? That’s probably the person you want to be your Facebook legacy contact.

This person will be able to write a post that will remain at the top of your profile, update your profile photo and respond to friend requests. You can also allow that person to download an archive of your public activity (including posts, photos and “likes”), but he or she can’t read your messages, so your most intimate secrets will be safe.

Alternatively, you can set your account to delete everything once Facebook is notified of your death.

Facebook legacy contacts, however, will not also have access to your Instagram account (Facebook owns the photo-sharing app). But Instagram accounts can be memorialized or, if requested by a verified family member, deleted.

Google lets you choose up to 10 people to be the executors of your account once you die or your account becomes inactive via its inactive account manager feature.

To set this up, choose an amount of time between sign-ins for your account to be designated “inactive.” Once that threshold is met (for example, you don’t sign into any Google service for a certain number of months), your chosen contact will get a prewritten email from you with, presumably, your wishes for your account.

Unlike your legacy contact on Facebook, you can designate this person to have full access to your Google account, including email and chat histories, and he or she can download the data you specify. (You also have the option not to give that person access to any of it.)

Google also allows you to delete your account and all its data.

Twitter has no equivalent to a legacy contact or a way to plan for your online data after your death. It does, however, let a “verified immediate family member of the deceased” delete your account if that person can provide your death certificate and other official documents.

A similar protocol is in place in the event a user becomes incapacitated, though in that case someone will have to have proof of power of attorney.

In certain circumstances, Twitter says it will consider removing “imagery” of a deceased person, based on “public interest factors such as the newsworthiness of the content.”

These three networks offer no type of death planning, though all offer some form of account management for the deceased.

LinkedIn will let a verified next-of-kin have an account removed (via this form).

Snapchat said it can delete the account of a deceased person at the request of a next-of-kin (with a death certificate).

And Tumblr will let a next-of-kin request that an account be deleted.

Snapchat and Tumblr declined to say whether they’ll eventually add a similar legacy-contact feature, and LinkedIn said it’s “considering” some form of death planning or account memorialization.

Beyond that, many sites (including Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL) have relatively standard protocols in place for immediate family members to request the deletion of a deceased person’s account.

Online data storage is an especially tricky part of death planning. The industrywide push for privacy and encryption, while great for personal protection, has created its own problems.

“There’s a very real security and privacy implication that can somewhat conflict” with online death planning, said Ahin Thomas, the vice president of marketing for Backblaze, an online backup service. “If you set up a private encryption key — we’re not joking — we don’t have access.”

In one recent case, a widow contacted the company for access to her late husband’s backups, but the data was inaccessible because it had been encrypted.

“It was heartbreaking and sad, and I wish we could’ve done something,” Mr. Thomas said. “But the stuff was encrypted.”

So what can we do? The best advice, Mr. Thomas said, is to simply give the keys to your data to someone you trust. (Some backup services have protocols in place for this. Check with yours.)

Images

Is Your Digital Life Ready for Your Death?

Is Your Digital Life Ready for Your Death?

Is Your Digital Life Ready for Your Death?

Click here to view original web page at Is Your Digital Life Ready for Your Death?

You’ve probably thought about what will happen to your finances, your possessions and maybe even your real estate when you die. But what about your Facebook account? Or your hard-drive backups?

For the past two decades, most of us in the modern world have gradually shifted our central living space online. That’s 20-ish years of documenting our real-life experiences while also creating entirely new versions of ourselves in countless places online.

These digital lives are basically immortal, so you may as well figure out while you’re still alive what will happen to them after you’re gone.

There are two main things to consider: What will happen to your accounts and what will happen to the data contained therein. For example, you can give someone authority to delete your Google account and to download all your photos stored there after you die.

It’s a grim thought, but like writing a last will and testament, this has become just another part of death preparation.

Many online spaces offer some form of death planning. But this is still a relatively new concept, and some of the most popular destinations on the internet don’t give users a way to plan for their death. In that case, it’s best to establish a plan now with a trusted loved one.

For the websites and services that do offer help, here’s what to know.

Whom do you trust to mind your central online presence after your death? That’s probably the person you want to be your Facebook legacy contact.

This person will be able to write a post that will remain at the top of your profile, update your profile photo and respond to friend requests. You can also allow that person to download an archive of your public activity (including posts, photos and “likes”), but he or she can’t read your messages, so your most intimate secrets will be safe.

Alternatively, you can set your account to delete everything once Facebook is notified of your death.

Facebook legacy contacts, however, will not also have access to your Instagram account (Facebook owns the photo-sharing app). But Instagram accounts can be memorialized or, if requested by a verified family member, deleted.

Google lets you choose up to 10 people to be the executors of your account once you die or your account becomes inactive via its inactive account manager feature.

To set this up, choose an amount of time between sign-ins for your account to be designated “inactive.” Once that threshold is met (for example, you don’t sign into any Google service for a certain number of months), your chosen contact will get a prewritten email from you with, presumably, your wishes for your account.

Unlike your legacy contact on Facebook, you can designate this person to have full access to your Google account, including email and chat histories, and he or she can download the data you specify. (You also have the option not to give that person access to any of it.)

Google also allows you to delete your account and all its data.

Twitter has no equivalent to a legacy contact or a way to plan for your online data after your death. It does, however, let a “verified immediate family member of the deceased” delete your account if that person can provide your death certificate and other official documents.

A similar protocol is in place in the event a user becomes incapacitated, though in that case someone will have to have proof of power of attorney.

In certain circumstances, Twitter says it will consider removing “imagery” of a deceased person, based on “public interest factors such as the newsworthiness of the content.”

These three networks offer no type of death planning, though all offer some form of account management for the deceased.

LinkedIn will let a verified next-of-kin have an account removed (via this form).

Snapchat said it can delete the account of a deceased person at the request of a next-of-kin (with a death certificate).

And Tumblr will let a next-of-kin request that an account be deleted.

Snapchat and Tumblr declined to say whether they’ll eventually add a similar legacy-contact feature, and LinkedIn said it’s “considering” some form of death planning or account memorialization.

Beyond that, many sites (including Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL) have relatively standard protocols in place for immediate family members to request the deletion of a deceased person’s account.

Online data storage is an especially tricky part of death planning. The industrywide push for privacy and encryption, while great for personal protection, has created its own problems.

“There’s a very real security and privacy implication that can somewhat conflict” with online death planning, said Ahin Thomas, the vice president of marketing for Backblaze, an online backup service. “If you set up a private encryption key — we’re not joking — we don’t have access.”

In one recent case, a widow contacted the company for access to her late husband’s backups, but the data was inaccessible because it had been encrypted.

“It was heartbreaking and sad, and I wish we could’ve done something,” Mr. Thomas said. “But the stuff was encrypted.”

So what can we do? The best advice, Mr. Thomas said, is to simply give the keys to your data to someone you trust. (Some backup services have protocols in place for this. Check with yours.)

Images

Why tech businesses are tackling society’s most taboo subject

Why tech businesses are tackling society’s most taboo subject

Why tech businesses are tackling society’s most taboo subject

Click here to view original web page at Why tech businesses are tackling society’s most taboo subject

Death will happen to us all, but it’s not something we like to talk about or prepare for. The UK population is now older than it has ever been – by 2039, more than one in 12 of the population is projected to be aged 80 or over – and the death rate has risen. There were 602,786 deaths in the UK during 2015, according to the cumulative England and WalesScotland and Northern Ireland figures, up 5.4% from 2014. But some digitally-focused entrepreneurs have spotted an opportunity in the rise, and see this traditional industry as ripe for disruption.

New challenges

Death in the modern age comes with an entirely new set of issues – how to handle our online legacies, such as our tweets, Facebook posts, playlists and other virtual creations. It is a question that has occupied Suelin Chen, founder and CEO of online end-of-life planning service Cake. The platform differs from others as it also provides a concierge facility to handle posthumous profiles online.

“Most people haven’t thought about what they would want to happen to their online accounts after they’ve passed away. We help people understand that there might be precious memories or even actual assets in their Dropbox, Gmail, Facebook, Instagram accounts, etc,” she says.

Chen says the terms and conditions for each site vary and this can be a potential problem for grieving relatives. Also, digital legacy is such a new concept, it is often missed by traditional will makers. “[Wills] are not typically updated enough to manage how often the digital landscape of our lives change. Legacy-building in the digital age is a whole new frontier.”

Dan Garrett, founder and CEO of London-based startup Farewill, is aiming to make it easier for people to update their wills. The business enables people to create a will online for £50 and make updates for just £5 a year. Before launching, Garrett spent time interviewing funeral directors to gain an insight into their work. He discovered that more than half of all people fail to draw up a will and of those who do, most documents are old and unreflective of the owner’s final wishes.

Garrett and all of his team have training in writing wills and the business has created around 2,000 so far. “There are a lot of costs and problems if you die intestate,” he points out. Latest figures estimate the average cost to an estate of dying without a will is £9,700 because of unclaimed assets and poor tax planning.

For some, the financial burden of organising a funeral can also be vast. Insurance company Sun Life found that the average cost of a death in the UK is £8,802 once funeral costs, probate and the send off have been paid for. A 2014 report by the University of Bath estimates that 100,000 people cannot afford to die.

Among the business’ investors are Zoopla and Lovefilm founder, Alex Chesterman, venture capital company Kindred Capital, and Wonga founder, Errol Damelin. Garrett says the nature of his investors is a sign of his own ambition. “Alex Chesterman changed the whole real estate market so I was really excited to bring him on board – we want to do the same with the death industry. The industry is ripe for disruption. I think the fact it hasn’t been is more of a reflection of it being a taboo, than of technical difficulty,” he says.

Increasing transparency

Perhaps because of its taboo nature, the death and funeral industry lacks the transparency of other sectors. Kim Bird is attempting to alter this with her Cardiff-based company About the Funeral, which was founded in 2012. The business received £250,000 from the investment consortium InspireWales, including GoCompare founders Hayley Parsons and Kevin Hughes (Hughes is on her board), and aims to bring price comparison services to the funeral market. “People are unfamiliar with buying a funeral. They either haven’t done it before, or not for a long time.”

Bird, who previously worked in the funeral industry as a bereavement support volunteer, says there are calls from both the public and parliamentarians (including Frank Field MP, chair of the work and pensions select committee) for greater transparency in the industry. She points to research from YouGov suggesting 85% of people want funeral prices published online. “The main challenges have been the nature of the market. It is a traditional industry – changing it is a big challenge,” she says.

It is early days for her company, which has so far signed up 100 funeral directors to its subscription service, but Bird believes now she has the funding and an experienced board, she is well placed to make a difference. “These days, the internet is where most people go for information and About the Funeral is just an extension of that. Many industries have been disrupted in this way – the insurance industry has been through it and now price comparison is the norm for that sector.”

Derrick Grant, who recently launched his funeral director’s network Willow, says he was shocked by the sheer cost of funerals and felt that grieving families were all too often getting a raw deal. “Having watched a friend struggle to pay for his wife’s funeral, I wanted to understand why it was so expensive. After doing research, it became obvious that a lot of the cost is simply because we don’t have the time or access to question the traditional funeral process,” he says.

Grant launched his business in December 2016 with a handful of independent funeral directors connected to his site. Users fill in a simple questionnaire and are directed to the provider who most closely matches their needs. The business makes money through the sale of funeral products such as coffins, flowers and celebrant services. Grant says people often pay large sums for these and it is easy to undercut his competition. He believes he is also making the process easier.

“There are a lot of questions to answer at a time when most people aren’t concerned with paperwork and chasing phone calls,” Grant says. “Booking a cremation can take several phone calls to agree a time and date. Digitising processes so the public and funeral directors are on equal footing and can make decisions faster will make huge differences in the industry. Talking about death is becoming easier, but it’s still difficult to understand what to do when you lose someone.”

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