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Death, disrupted

Technology is changing our relationship with death. Eveliina Lempiäinen dives into the ways startups confront, intersect, and cash out from death and dying.

 

© Luumu Jokelainen

From Normcore to Mysticore

Do you consider yourself spiritual, but not religious? Welcome to the club. The metaphysical belief of not being quite sure has become a cashed good and an identity accessory worn with goofy – often Millennial – pride. 

Normcore is old news. It’s Mysticore season. Mysticore – a trend involving belief in the healing powers of healing crystals, Tarot reading and Instagrammable witchcraft – is bigger than ever. 

The new era of New Age is great business, as The Guardian piece illustrates: “The renewed appetite for the mystical is clearly inspiring an entrepreneurial mindset.”

If you won’t meet a tall dark stranger, you might still have a fortune coming your way. Sanctuary is an app designed to be the “talkspace for astrology.” A certain David Birnbaum, Co-Founder and managing partner at Five Four Ventures LLC – not to be confused with the Canadian politician and journalist of the same name – has backed Sanctuary, believing the venture potential of the market to be $2.1 billion, as he told the New York Times.

Spiritual tourism – also larger than life these days. Mobile apps such WeSalam, founded in 2012 and based in Dubai’s Silicon Oasis, are helping Muslims to plan their annual pilgrimage to Mecca. 

Indian seed startup Kalpnik, on the other hand, questions whether it’s worth it to fight off other believers at overcrowded shrine complexes, when you could just go through the same immersive spiritual experience at the comfort of your home? The company is disrupting devotion with its 360 VR video stream that brings the respective gods and gurus to the devotees’ yard. 

Projects such as The Brain Factory’s Flatline take a more straightforward stance towards death. In the non-fiction VR series, the user picks one out of different deadly storylines and then goes through a 6-minute roller coaster-like experience wearing the Oculus Rift headset. 

According to Psychology Today, the most common aftereffect of the real-deal Near Death Experience is the loss of the fear of death and a strengthened belief in the afterlife. There is typically a new awareness of purpose in experiencers’ lives. 

Do technologies like Flatline alleviate our concerns about death? Does it feel safer when, with just a little help from tech, you can bring your guru to your living room? 

It might just be that the spiritual apps, while aiming to bring more meaning and joy to users’ lives, might also be a mere distraction; another swipe for instant gratification, meanwhile drawing our attention further away from the complex, yet worthwhile questions of existence and nonexistence.

Pushing the human Expiry Dates

It started in the 1960s – the big brain freeze. Bodies or severed heads were preserved in ice, in the hopes of resurrecting the Ötzi-like characters later, had technology advanced enough. 

That’s old news, right? Today, cryonics is widely seen as a quackery. Yet, humans still crave a life that lasts, if not eternally, at least as long as possible. 

The death of an individual does not represent only the destruction of an organism, but the end of one conscious history. 

According to the good old philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, people define themselves widely based on their future-oriented projects. Who or what I am largely translates to what I will still accomplish. This is a bourgeois concept of personality since it is defined by individual action. Yet it makes you wonder: has the duration of life become a competitive sport as well?

Optimized diets and extreme fasting, ring-monitored sleep cycles, ozone-shots straight into the circulation… There are scales and monitors for basically every function of the body, and even more offbeat hacks for the professionals. 

Say buh-bye to Hubba Bubba: there’s a seed-stage startup called Neurogum, selling nootropic chewing gum engineered in Los Angeles to energize and focus your mind. Another seed-stage sower, Russian-based Gero, is “hacking aging” by collecting the data of user’s activities, further making a forecast of their life expectancy. 

When getting older, human cells are damaged. Since cellular damage increases the risk of diseases and thereby death, some researchers suggest biting into the underlying reason – aging. 

It seems that companies are now headed more towards the practice of keeping people healthy, rather than merely treating the symptoms.

Unity Biotechnology, a company that develops medicines that potentially reverse age-associated diseases, completed $55M Series C in funding last year

A Finnish biotech company Nightingale Health aims to solve the global chronic disease crisis with their highly recognized biomarker analysis technology utilizing NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance). They’ve recently secured a €20M loan from European Investment Bank to keep up the good work. 

Who gets to decide whose lives are worthy of extending? Should one be prepared to craft a bold motivational letter to a suited-up board of consultants, in hopes of getting the green light for living a little longer?

Exit Without a Trace

A classic movie scene. A mourning person calls to the answering machine of a deceased loved one, over and over again, only to hear their voice a few more times. Weren’t those the days! A short message on a landline telephone was the most significant trace one would leave after hopping on the last rattler.

Nowadays, we can sometimes see people posting on Facebook walls of deceased friends or relatives. Occasionally, and very spookily, it can even seem as the dead person is posting beyond the grave when a relative manages to get access to their social media accounts. 

Facebook has a policy that allows people to designate their “legacy contact.” The person chosen will be allowed to “pin a post on your Timeline” after the user’s death, such as a funeral announcement. 

This means you could share one last killer belfie, if need be, to make sure people will not forget how beautiful your butt was.

When it comes to our last will, we tend to first think about the tangible possessions. What happens to our diaries, our house, and our valuables? Should they be burnt, given to charity, passed on to friends and lovers? 

Considering the amount of stuff future historians will have on hand, it is very reasonable to think about a digital will, and possibly some sort of a cleanup of your digital estate. 

As this Forbes article puts it: “It isn’t just the data we consciously add to the pile, as we document our lives through social media. Increasingly, devices such as smartphones, cameras and other Internet of Things (IoT) technology are recording, measuring and storing data as we rely on them to (hopefully) make our lives easier and more convenient.” 

Regardless of what you create, save and pin by yourself – even if you decide to opt-out of all of the above – there will exist abundant data records of you anyway. 

It’s a Wild West out there with Google’s policies. Google puts no limits on how long it will hold on the information like emails, GPS and documents after someone dies. Although, Google has never been able to guarantee that personal data is completely removed from their systems, even when a user isn’t in the jaws of death just yet.

As in many other areas, it has been tricky for legislation to keep up with the pace of digital development. Thus the whole question of our post mortem virtual footprint is a bit muddled. 

Better to be safe than sorry, and not give away all your attention, information, and connections online, because as Carissa Véliz, a research fellow specialising in digital ethics and public policy, puts it on her essay on privacy, its loss and the disempowerment that follows: “Power over others’ privacy is the quintessential kind of power in the digital age.”

 

Best Friends Post Mortem

What’s your favorite part of bonding with your BFF? Their sense of humor? Their empathy? Them being able to get you from half a word? Try imagining all those features wiped away, and the physical vessel you call your best friend gone as well, shuffled off this mortal coil. Take a moment. 

While you are at it, picture bringing back your friend, digitally. Or at least a part of them. 

Eugenia Kuyda, the Co-Founder of the AI startup Luka (dba Replika, founded in 2015), built a memorial bot of his best friend and previous business partner Roman Mazurenko. Since then, the Luka AI has befriended 2,5 million people. “We’re in an age where it doesn’t matter if something is alive or not alive,” Kuyda told Forbes. 

After Mazurenko’s sudden death in a car accident, Kyuda was left shaken. A way of processing her grief, she used chatbot-technology, computational linguistics, and an extensive collection of his texts, to create an avatar that mimicked Mazurenko. 

To this day, the app named after Roman can be downloaded from the app store to have a chat with the character, which “speaks” back with Mazurenko’s voice. 

Is there a point in trying to mimic the versatile essence of your friend long gone? Would it be a cold comfort or consoling? 

As we know, AI is not the sharpest tool in the shed, when it comes to emotions and empathy. Also, an ethical question arises: would the deceased person agree to their data being used after they have taken the pale horse for a ride? It’s, well, sort of impossible to give consent when you’re dead as a dodo. 

An interesting aspect of the avatars is curating. How far can you go with governing the features of a digital entity? Isn’t part of the human charm our unpredictability? In 2013 Black Mirror episode Be Right Back we saw how the main character grew frustrated with the incomplete nature of an android created based on the data of her late husband. 

Like she says to the artificial hubby: “You’re just a few ripples of you. There’s no history to you. You’re just a performance of stuff that he performed without thinking, and it’s not enough.” 

West Coast-based Eterni.me (est. 2014) takes the creation of a post mortem avatar a step further, allowing the user to build and train their digital incarnation beforehand. “Training” is to improve the vocabulary and conversational skills of the avatar, which is otherwise mainly built on stored information from social media platforms, emails, photos, videos, and Google Glass and Fitbit devices. 

Becoming virtually immortal isn’t all that inclusive, though. Eterni.me only lets a few people sign up for an early access every week.

Leaving a legacy seems to be engraved in our DNA – be the heritage a house built, a novel written or a party-of-a-lifetime thrown. Fading into oblivion appears to be a great misfortune to the majority of people. 

Even if one is essentially aware of the puny nature of human existence, we still use a better part of our waking hours worrying about the things we did in the cafeteria this morning or the things we would like to try but are too nervous to initiate.

Truth is no one cares, in a good way. Maybe take that as a tip and get busy doing what you wish, since we are all going to die anyway. 

 

The End

Death is said to be a taboo, yet it is an intriguing topic for us. We see images and hear about it every day in the news and entertainment. Rather than being a subject off-limits, we are simply not encouraged to discuss death much.

Tom George claims on Vice that millennials and gen Z are obsessed with the subject, though. Maybe it is because the planet is dying with us? Oh well. 

We tend to prefer life over death, but in his article Death (originally from the 1979 book Mortal Questions by Cambridge University Press) philosopher Thomas Nagel ponders whether death is ultimately a bad thing. 

“On the one hand, it can be said that life is all we have and the loss of it is the greatest loss we can sustain. On the other hand, it may be objected that death deprives this supposed loss of its subject, and that if we realize that death is not an unimaginable condition of the persisting person, but a mere blank, we will see that it can have no value whatever, positive or negative.”

An amusing thought experiment, after the observations of Lucretius, a Roman poet and Epicurean philosopher: no one finds it disturbing to contemplate the eternity preceding their own birth. This is called temporal asymmetry. Lucretius thought that it must be irrational to fear death since death is simply the mirror image of the prior abyss.

When looking at the startup world’s current undertakings on death, it seems that the ending of life keeps entrepreneurs occupied. Future technology is often seen as either a looming threat or blissful salvation. At its worst, the developing longevity and immortality tech could be extremely unequalizing.

It all comes down to money and morality. Who has the resources to pursue a lengthy life and an optimized deathbed? Is it sustainable to prolong lives after a certain point? How would we regulate the amount or the type of people who get an immortality pass? If you would get to pick three people to accompany your immortality ship, on what would you base your decision? 

Instead of tickets to eternal life being distributed for the wealthiest few in the future, we will hopefully see more technologies that make our relationship with dying a bit easier, and our last moments as pleasant as possible, regardless of our assets. 

You can already choose a biodegradable urn or have an all-ecological burial with the help of Promessa, a decomposition system devised by Swedish biologist Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak. 

Feeling especially fancy? Your ashes can be pressed into a memorial diamond by Algordanza. All might come from dust, but not everyone has to return to dust.

Death as a service? There’s a startup for every corpse.

 

 

Eveliina Lempiäinen is a free writer from Finland. She had a near death experience once, and the contemplation of death goes on.