Only life can take away the pain

I’d say that technology helps us express and alleviate pain, but intensifies it too.

An interview on the future of dying from the McCann Talks 3 publication.

Author: Marko Živković, Associate Technical & Interactive Manager, McCann Beograd

Interlocutor: Andrej Jeftić, PhD, Theologian and Professor at the School of Theology, Belgrade University

After the first technological revolution and the steam engine, and then mass production, we are slowly closing the third technological revolution that has made us go digital, and we have the privilege to witness the writing of the first digital pages of the fourth technological revolution that will bring advances in robotics and artificial intelligence.

Over the past few years, new technologies – social media in particular – have changed the paradigm of the world we live in. Indirectly, they have even impacted people who have never come close to a computer or held a smart phone in their hands. They have made it possible for the majority of people on the planet to take centre stage, giving them a chance to address the world, to send it a message that’s important to them. There’s no doubt that social media, new technologies and digital communication have been pivotal in some events that have changed the planet, such as Brexit or Donald Trump becoming President of the USA. Technology has changed the way we travel, move about. It creates new needs and makes it possible for us to satisfy them easily.

When James Vlahos found out that his father was terminally ill, modern technology and artificial intelligence inspired him to have a series of conversations with his father, which he recorded or wrote down. Later, when his father had passed away, he kept the memory of him alive using Dadbot, a unique chatbot app. Chatbot apps are computer programmes designed to convincingly simulate a conversation using auditory and textual messages. The chatbot app Vlahos programmed is installed on his phone. It contains all the details of all the conversations he had with his father, helping him ‘remember’ the details from his childhood, his father’s own memories. He can hear his father sing and see photographs related to the questions he asked. The complete story, ‘How a Son Made a Chatbot of His Dying Dad’, is available on Wired.

The Dadbot story raises numerous questions about the future in which we’ll live, what the world will look like, how we’ll deal with the loss or pain that partly help form us as persons, about moral dilemmas, setting boundaries between humans and machines, etc. I have tried to find the answers to these questions, especially with regard to the future of spirituality and technology, with the help of Andrej Jeftić, PhD, theologian and professor at the School of Theology at Belgrade University.

What do you think about Vlahos’ approach – is it exhibitionism or make-believe or a way to deal with pain?

I think that the question should be addressed to the creator of that chatbot. What is exhibitionism for one man may be an expression of the most genuine emotions for another. What I find moving in this story is that it confirms how ‘unnatural’ death is to us. Despite all our rationalisations, we find it hard to come to terms with it, so we turn to various ways of mitigating the absence of our loved ones and keeping them close, keeping them alive so to speak. I think that almost everyone who has lost a loved one tends to communicate with them in some way or other: by talking to them at their grave, through prayer, letters. It’s no wonder he wanted to hear an answer. In a way, technology has made it possible. However, we all know that even if the future makes it appear more convincing, the answer is not authentic and that the loved one doesn’t go on living. I am certain that a person who is dealing with the loss of their loved one cannot be satisfied with anything less than life. And this is something that I, as a Christian, believe we will be able to do: live with our loved ones forever.

Can modern technologies be a mechanism to express and heal the pain, or are they a means to avoid coming to terms with a loss?

I am going to offer a diplomatic answer again. I think that they can do all those things. Digital society enables man to share pain with more people and get moral support and encouragement from them. Although they haven’t been replaced, funeral meals have been given their digital version in the form of social media posts, where expressing and (literally) sharing pain with others may help alleviate it. A burden shared with the people close to us is easier to bear. However, new technologies have made something else possible for us: to leave more traces behind, including digital ones. For instance, only a century ago – even less than that – it was quite normal for a person not to leave behind a single photo of themselves. So, in Victorian England, it was a (to us morbid) custom to take photographs of the recently deceased. Since they were not photographed while they were alive, people wanted to perpetuate the image of their loved one, so they took photos of themselves next to the deceased. Today, people leave a variety of traces: photographs, videos, audio recordings, Facebook profiles (every day, some 8,000 Facebook profiles become profiles of dead people). This might help us deal with pain but it may also intensify it by reminding us of the people we’ve lost in a much more palpable way than was possible before, when the face of the deceased remained only in the memory of the people close to them – if there. In any case, alleviating pain by sharing it with others and keeping digital memories can never make up for the absence of the deceased. So... I’d say that technology helps us express and alleviate pain, but intensifies it too.

How do you, as a member of the clergy, see the connection between people, technology and artificial intelligence?

This is quite a complex question, because it covers a whole range of topics and possible directions that the future might take. Therefore, I have to give you a non-specific answer. The possibility of artificial intelligence reaching the level of human intelligence – the so-called singularity, which some predict will happen by the middle of this century – causes euphoria in some people and terror and anxiety in others. I would like to refer your readers who do not share the sentiments of the latter to the blogger Tim Urban and his fantastic texts on the subject. Not only does combining technological gadgets with a biological body make medical treatments possible, but it can also help improve our natural characteristics. That’s why, according to many, transhumanism is an inevitable next step in evolution. I would like to point out two things. First, history has taught us that technological progress is irreversible. The question is not whether to accept it or not but how to approach each case. Second, I think it’s necessary that man stays in the centre of our universe. We shouldn’t let our species be replaced by a superior form of life, nor should our race play a supporting role either. Despite their anxiety, Christians look at the future with hope and enthusiasm, but since we know that it is we who create it, there is always a dose of caution and a sense of responsibility.

We know that almost every one of us leaves numerous digital traces every day by visiting websites, emailing, reading online ads, browsing, online shopping. We know that all this data is stored, memorised and cross-referenced, so if we imagine that computers will be able to know more about us than we do, can technology replace a living human being?

A study has shown that it’s possible to make quite a comprehensive profile of a person based on their likes on Facebook. This includes age, gender, sexual and political orientation, hobbies, taste in music, etc. This means that either we are not as special as advertising tries to convince us, or our choices in the goods, politics and even sexuality markets is not what makes us special. The first-mentioned understanding of our uniqueness is, I believe, a product of capitalism. We don’t buy to satisfy practical needs but to realise our own uniqueness as a person. We don’t buy a tracksuit, earphones or wine because we need them but because the choice of that particular tracksuit, of that particular wine, enables us to express ourselves as a person and be our unique selves. Such uniqueness, suggests the study, is imaginary. It is already possible for an algorithm to reproduce these kinds of choices. However, we are not what we choose to buy, the party we vote for, the money we have. We are much more than that. What makes us irreplaceable is the love we give to others and the love we receive. To sum up, I believe that we, people who love and are loved, cannot be replaced by technology, as sophisticated as it may be.