Updated: Jan 23
How AI and VR enable a continued existence for experts
In 2020, Vincent Lalenti, an anthropologist whose research studies the culture of the organizations and individuals involved in nuclear waste disposal, published a fascinating and highly suggestive article about the impact of the death of a scientist who had been leading a major project at Finland’s radioactive waste management company. From the 1990’s to 2005, Seppo had inspired, cajoled, and bludgeoned a committee of scientists and engineers to undertake an unprecedented look into the future of a particular site that the company wanted to use as a permanent repository for nuclear waste from all over the world.
The project involved a combination of studies relative to the stability of the site on a time scale of 120,000 years and is described in Dr. Lalenti’s book Deep Time Reckoning (Penguin, Random House 2020) but what interests me most is what happened in the lives and work of Seppo’s former colleagues after his untimely demise. Since he began his research at the project laboratory six years after Seppo died, Lalenti never met Seppo but in talking to his former colleagues (and even some newer team members who had never met Seppo) Lalenti soon found that “his ‘spectre’ still haunted the community. Everyone was constantly talking about him and seeking to reference their present work back to what Seppo would have said or done. After doing his fieldwork, Lalenti “came to appreciate how dead experts can have powerful afterlives.”
Afterlives are precisely what several innovative companies are pursuing in a field that can best be called “reminiscence tech”. Companies like Hereafter.ai https://www.hereafter.ai/ base their work on an exhaustive series of audio recordings of life story interviews with living subjects who want to be a presence in the lives of their children and grandchildren. YOV, (You Only Virtual) https://www.myyov.com goes deeper by using artificial intelligence and machine learning to build virtual persons (Versonas) tailored to an understanding of the complexities of the subject’s relationship with a loved one. After the demise of the physical body, the individual lives on as a Versona able to communicate with loved ones out of the same unique personality that they had when they were living.
Both Hereafter.ai and YOV are oriented towards making the dead come alive virtually so that loved ones can continue the relationship either through sharing memories or continuing a unique and complex personal relationship. But suppose these same approaches were applied to someone like Seppo the dead expert. A versona of Seppo based on a series of interviews combined with his publications, reports and social media postings could have proven extremely helpful to his erstwhile team which had to continue the work he was instrumental in starting but without the benefit of his expertise and inspiration.
Furthermore, as Lalenti observes “Seppo was not a famous intellectual from decades, centuries, or millennia past. He introduced no grand idea, theory, or invention”. Instead, Seppo was “indispensable” to the small teams working with him and for the organizations that employed him.” At any one time there must be hundreds, or even thousands of Seppo’s heading small research teams in hundreds of companies all over the world. Suppose their knowledge, but even more important their critical insights, manner of tackling problems and meeting challenges could be preserved for use by their former team members and even be made available to other teams or companies working in similar fields. There could even be a repository of experts available for a fee to companies requiring the knowledge and experience of one of the Versona. A future virtual meeting built for the metaverse could feature a pre-selected team of Versona type avatars ready to advise and inform participants.
The anthropological literature has a rich tradition of studying the impact of the biologically dead on the living. Applying the approaches of the “reminiscence tech” innovators may point the way to actualizing these afterlives and making them available to their erstwhile colleagues. In that way, their unique contributions to specialized teams can continue, and the jarring discontinuities imposed by their physical demise can be more readily overcome. physical us “speak” to our . Are we ready?
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Lalenti, Vincent (June 2020) “Specters of Seppo: the afterlives of Finland’s nuclear waste experts” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 26 (2) 251-268. Retrieved November 27, 2022.