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If you could meet your dead parent again through virtual reality would you?

Unthinkable: Technology is throwing up new moral dilemmas - ‘screen studies’ may help us to answer them

New technology muscles into your life whether you like it or not – and in future perhaps also into your death. It is not fanciful to imagine in a few years’ time funeral directors routinely asking bereaved families if they would like, along with a casket or flowers, an avatar of the deceased.

A market for “grief tech” has already taken off in the United States. One of the biggest operators is HereafterAI, whose creator James Vlahos started the business as a “Dadbot” of his then dying (now deceased) father. Customers can create an “immortal” avatar of their loved one through a virtual reality (VR) filming process that costs up to $50,000 (€46,000).

There are cheaper options available in China where several companies now sell interactive digital replicas of loved ones. The price has come down from about $3,000 to a few hundred dollars, according to a report last month in MIT Technology Review.

The prospect of such goods becoming normalised here were discussed at a conference in Dublin last week. One of the organisers, Dr Jennifer O’Meara, associate professor of film studies at Trinity College Dublin, examined the case of Meeting You, a Korean documentary about a mother who was given the chance to interact with a VR-generated version of her deceased daughter.

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The film asks viewers to consider whether they would similarly meet a dead loved one through VR if they had the opportunity. “Just because we can do this doesn’t mean we necessary should,” O’Meara says.

Part of her unease about VR experiences like Meeting You is how they adopt “manipulative cues” and “filmic melodrama” – the mother and child are projected into scenes of added poignancy, including a play space with a picnic table and a birthday cake.

O’Meara’s involvement with the conference is part of a four-year research project backed by the Irish Research Council called From Cinematic Realism to Extended Reality: Reformulating Screen Studies at the Precipice of Hyper-reality. It’s a long name for what is essentially a bid to use film studies to better understand how VR and artificial intelligence (AI) will shape our future lives.

O’Meara notes that computer scientists and tech entrepreneurs tend to dominate debate on AI. Her project brings “a humanities perspective”.

“Often there is no acknowledgment that what we are seeing today are forms of earlier types of special effects and illusions in the screen media.”

There is a parallel between some of the criticism of AI today and claims made in the early days of cinema that movies are tools of deception. “Audiences learn all of the film grammar of close up, shot, reverse shot” and this helps them to critically judge what they are seeing, O’Meara says. Similarly, with VR “we can see the seams of the technology ... and we can see when things are ‘off’. As of now that generally prevents complete belief in the fake.”

She emphasises “as of now”. AI in future might not allow us to see the “seams” between the real and the fake. A related worry is the rise of what another researcher from the TCD conference calls the “truth agnostic”.

“When you survey people who are watching some of these fake videos or deep fakes, and ask them if they’re bothered that what they were watching turned out to be fake a lot of them seemed not to be – provided they were entertained or enjoyed the experience,” says O’Meara.

One question being considered as part of the research project is whether the history of screen can offer lessons for regulating a technology like VR.

No government appears to be either willing or able to interfere with the business plans of AI companies. However, some Hollywood stars and other figures in creative industries are making attempts to hold tech giants accountable through copyright and privacy laws.

The latest such action was launched last month by actor Scarlett Johansson – she is suing ChatGPT over its use of a voice “eerily similar” to hers in its updated version. Such legal actions serve as “test cases” for wider society, O’Meara says.

There have also been cases of children suing “influencer” parents over the use of images without their consent on social media. “This highlights that parents don’t necessarily own the digital life of their child, or afterlife, as they might expect,” says O’Meara.

Returning to the question of whether to resurrect a deceased loved one in virtual form, she asks: “who can give that consent?” As to whether there is a market for it, O’Meara says: “At the moment these technologies are prohibitively expensive for most people... but as they become more embedded or dominant – like with laptops or smartphones – they will become cheaper and more people will have access to them.”

There are no simple answers to moral questions generated by new technology. However, O’Meara highlights the value of digital media literacy or learning “to be able to critically read signs of deception in whatever form”.

Food for thought for this year’s Leaving Cert students ahead of the CAO change-of-mind deadline. Film studies may once have been considered a “doss” course but as a form of understanding the relationship between humans and screens it might just inoculate you from being absorbed unknowingly into unreality.