In time, my avatar might write on TheJournal.mt

Imagine a future where you will have a virtual living “cartoon” version of yourself that you use on the social media, video conferencing, and other online spaces. What would your avatar look like? And how would it behave? I ask because it appears that we are on the threshold of creating virtual version of ourselves.

Human beings have always spent a good amount of time managing their appearance, thinking and worrying about the image they project to others. The quandary they have is that there are some things they can control, like words, actions and clothes, and some things that are much harder to change, if at all, like their weight, eye colour, or height.

At the onset of COVID, many people started working remotely. They had no choice. I was one of them. All my meetings moved online. Virtual conferencing tools have become the new normal. Zoom have said they have 300 million daily meeting participants. But the new normal didn’t stop with online meetings.

Prevented from going anywhere on vacation, we soon had staycations, with people “visiting” exotic locations or virtual reality museums while sitting on their couch at home. Some even indulged in a new kind of dream vacation that could be “booked” via Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons. They found the game’s virtual island as the perfect place to meet with family and friends and socialize.

What would your avatar look like?

And how would it behave?

Digital experts predict that managing the appearance of our virtual selves will become as important as managing our real selves. Rather than looking in the mirror, we will be checking our computers to see if our avatar looks good. People will want their avatar to make a good impression and they will worry about how “it” behaves.

So, avatars aren’t only for gamers anymore. Having an online self isn’t just for people who feel more comfortable in the virtual world. My daughter had to create her avatar to participate in an on-line seminar. These virtual characters will become our virtual identities.

Cody Berlin, Director of Software Development at Aliza Technologies, a company that specializes in creating digital avatars, has decided to constantly record his grandparents 24/7 before they die. The reason for this is that he wanted to have enough video to create a pretty realistic digital approximation of them, so that he could continue to enjoy their company through their avatars, after they die.

Kanye West surprised Kim Kardashian and her closest inner circle when, on a trip to a private island where they thought they could solve their marital problems, he brought Kim’s father back from the dead. Once they were gathered in a blacked-out room, Rob Kardashian appeared before them. “You’re forty and all grown up. You look beautiful, just as you did as a little girl,” the hologram said, waving its arms in the direction of Kim. (Rob Kardashian died of cancer in 2003, when she was just 22 years old.)

It is not the first time that a hologram of a dead celebrity has appeared in culture. In 2012 Tupac Shakur ‘performed’ on stage with Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg. In those days the technology was nascent and expensive. The brief four minutes or so that the hologram appeared on stage cost, it is said, anywhere between 100 and 400,000 dollars.

Today, for significantly less money, three dimensional avatars can be created using the same rendering techniques that power “actors” in Hollywood movies to look and behave exactly like people who have passed away. With machine learning algorithms they can also sound exactly like a deceased person.

People will want their avatar to make a good impression and they will worry about how “it” behaves.

Now, instead of passively watching a pre-recorded hologram, we are able to interact with it. Companies like Eternime have created interactive digital avatars of deceased people by drawing on the digital footprint of the person. Scraping your emails, your messages and your social media profiles would create a huge data set for the company which it could then feed into an algorithm that would be able to respond exactly like you. The idea is to create “digital immortality”.

This technology is often referred to as deepfake. The most recent example of it was an entire TikTok feed of Tom Cruise jamming around, playing golf, mussing up his hair and generally looking and sounding exactly like the Top Gun star himself. Except it wasn’t. Some 2.4 million people followed the TikTok clip of a face-mapping and voice tool rendered on top of a Tom Cruise impersonator. (It was so accurate that it even featured his misaligned teeth.)

In our already fragmented politics, the idea that soon it will be impossible to trust any video of any public figure takes misinformation to an entirely new dimension. Beyond politics, how will we handle deepfake avatars from committing fraud exacting revenge on real people?

In 2019, a digitally altered video showing Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, appearing to slur drunkenly through a speech was widely shared on Facebook and YouTube. According to The Daily Beast, the clip was first posted by Shawn Brooks, 34, a sports blogger and “Trump superfan” from New York, who uploaded the avatars to Facebook. Trump then posted the clip on Twitter with the caption: “PELOSI STAMMERS THROUGH NEWS CONFERENCE”. The video was quickly debunked, but not before it had been viewed millions of times; the president did not delete his tweet, for which he received nearly 98,000 likes.

To mitigate the risk of these technologies, companies are already providing “digital undertaking services” that will scrub you from the internet entirely. Digital Beyond is helping people plan for the future of their online presence. For a fee, it will make clients disappear entirely from the internet once they are gone. In 2019 the Korean Employment Information Service listed Digital Undertaker as a job that would be popular in the very near future.

The idea that soon it will be impossible to trust any video of any public figure takes misinformation to an entirely new dimension.

Imagine, the PN’s digital undertaker will scrub out all the prophecies of financial collapse uttered by Simon Busuttil, while the PL’s digital undertaker will scrub out all the stories published by the late Daphne Caruana Galizia. Some time during next year’s election campaign, the avatar of Edward Zammit Lewis might appear mocking Labour voters as versions of Ġaħan, while the avatar of Bernard Grech might show him being refused entry to Castille. No doubt, people will believe they are watching the real thing.

Whether or not this technology is a good thing is an open question. That we might soon have digital approximations that can answer back is just a continuation of our human need to connect with the people who have come before us.   

I would not blame people who might want to be able to talk to Pope Paul John II and have him address their religious doubts, or converse with Donald Trump directly and tell him to his face that he is the worst thing that ever happened to America, if not to participate in a meeting with Dom Mintoff, his daughters and Mark Montebello to discuss whether it was the tail that wagged the dog or the other way round.

The question is how much the capacity for an avatar to respond is a real reflection of who they were. Even if the data used to power the avatar is entirely their own, does that mean that the output is really ‘them’?    

After all, it is pretty obvious that Kanye wrote the script of Rob Kardashian’s hologram. After opening with how beautiful Kim was and then listing her achievements – her becoming a lawyer (“continuing my legacy”), and her advocacy in Armenia, (“I am a proud Armenian father”), Rob’s ventriloquist proclaimed that the thing that made him proudest was seeing Kim build her family.

“You have married the most most most most most genius man in the whole world, Kanye West,” the hologram said. “You are the most most most most amazing mother to your four children, and they are perfect,” it continued.

“Kanye got me the most thoughtful gift of a lifetime,” Kim later said on Twitter. It might have been the most, but it wasn’t enough. The couple announced their divorce a few months later.

I must admit that I have not given any thought to what my avatar will say and do in the future, or whether I should have an avatar at all. In time my avatar might write on The Journal.mt. If not, I am reminded of what J.R.R. Tolkien said, “In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.”

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