Are Robots Haunted by Electric Ghosts?

Even after death, our digital selves continue – in email accounts, in social media profiles, in blogs and websites – virtual ghosts that haunt an electromagnetic dimension going beyond ‘ghosts of place’ (Bell, 1997; and recently documented by Pozzi, 2021) to construe ghosts of digital places. The machine world is already haunted: from the early days of photography and film, through to the development of the internet, technology has allowed simulacra of the living to persist beyond physical death. As the internet democratised communication, so mobile telephony has democratised photography and filmography, creating a population boom of such simulacra in the realm of Derridean ‘hauntology’ (Derrida, 1994).

However, these shadows of our digital lives are unintended consequences of living in the modern world, what happens when they become intentional, what happens when technology deliberately tries to bring the dead back to life, or even invent an afterlife? What happens when the metaphor of ‘hauntology’ becomes literal?

When a dead Freddie Mercury and Tupac Shakur appeared on stage to sing once more (Rolling Stone, 2012) and the late Carrie Fisher was re-assembled out of unused footage and CGI for The Rise of Skywalker (Porter, 2020), what sort of new Frankenstein’s monsters had we created? Microsoft has patented software that can bring the dead back as chatbots. Could a religious leader be brought back in a virtual Second Coming? What are the messianic implications of a digital Resurrection? Will we see a heavenly metaverse develop complete with angels, powers and dominions – a Web 3.0 version of Heaven 2.0? How will religion and spirituality adapt to the possibilities of AI?

The social sciences will be forced to accommodate not only human—non-human relationships, but also living—non-living human interactions as machine learning and quantum computing push us closer to true artificial intelligence, creating digitalised agency and virtual consciousness. How will we approach the study of community, society and culture under these new conditions? How will we approach the ultimate questions of life and death, and life after death? This paper will explore the emerging technologies of digital resurrection and their social implications.

‘Are Robots Haunted by Electric Ghosts? Artificial Intelligence and the Technological Construction of Life After Death’ was a paper presented by Dr Leo Ruickbie at the Royal Anthropological Institute’s conference ‘Anthropology, AI and the Future of Human Society’, 6-10 June 2022, during the session on ‘Travelling to Other Worlds and Altered States of Consciousness: Human-Artificial Relational Interactions and Living Worlds in the Age of Aquarius’ organised by Michelangelo Paganopoulos (Ton Duc Thang University, Vietnam).

The talk is available online here:

rai2022 P07b: Travelling to Other Worlds and Altered States of Consciousness: Human-Artificial relat – YouTube