Eugenia Kuyda and Roman Mazurenko were friends, whose relationship began in Moscow, in their late twenties. Both eventually found themselves living in the US, with Roman sharing a small space in Eugenia’s apartment. Although Roman’s business he had started when he first immigrated to the US, Stampsy, had gone under, he was still granted an American visa (Newton). In November of that same year, Roman returned Moscow to finalize the paperwork for his visa, and it was here that he was struck by a car and tragically died. His untimely death came as quite a shock to many of his friends, especially Kuyda.
Kuyda had been working in artificial intelligence for a few years by the time of Roman’s death. She had founded a small startup company called Luka, which was an app that was built to interact with bots, such as making restaurant reservations (Newton). It was this form of AI that first gave Kuyda the inspiration to use Roman’s digital legacy to recreate a bot of Roman, one that could converse with people, “mimick[ing] an individual person’s speech patterns” (Newton).
So many of us leave a digital imprint behind, by the pictures and information we share on the various social media sites, such as Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat. However, very few of us give any thought was to what should or would happen to that content after our deaths. Gaming profiles, text messages, emails; these are just a small example of the information we share about ourselves in the digital world. The text messages and emails were the pieces that Kuyda specifically was interested in. By using the thousands upon thousands of text messages and emails that Roman had sent amongst his many friends, Kuyda was able to create an artificial version of Roman.
This utilization of what seemingly would seem to be private information and conversations between Roman and his friends creates a controversial topic – what is a digital legacy and who owns the rights to it? According to the Digital Legacy Association, a digital legacy is defined as:
“the digital information that is available about someone following their death. Someone’s digital legacy is often formed by information that that they leave online. This may include any website or blog listings about the person, their social media proles, photos, videos, gaming proles and interactions they have had online.”
One of the various problems created by digital content is the discrepancy over ownership, as the laws pertaining to this are quite varied from site to site, as well as from country to country. In the US, we have laws that govern the privacy of our medical information (HIPAA), but anything beyond our protected health information creates quite a controversy in the US about the ownership of the data. According to many websites, once you click agree on the disclosures generated at sign up, you have waived your rights to that information (Your data, ultra deep). However, in the European Union, a new law was just passed that states the ownership of that data belongs to you, and you alone. You determine how much a company can collect, and demand that all records of yours are deleted and erased. This is a groundbreaking law, one bound to set a global precedent (Your data, ultra deep).
Personally, my initial reaction to the Roman bot was that I found it creepy. I thought it was a clingy, unhealthy way to get over a loved one’s death. But, as I read how the project continued to grow, I started to like the idea. People from all over the world are talking to Roman, even if he is not here on Earth with us anymore. Some people have said he has helped to pull them out of depression. So, in a way it is helpful. I do think digital legacies should be handled a little differently than this. It should be up to the deceased person’s family whether they want to release all of his personal information, and I feel they should not be pressured into it.
Because of the many complexities involving laws regarding access to your digital legacy and data, it is important to ensure that you include plans for what will happen to this when you make your will or are planning your estate. According to Sharp, “planning for their management, disposition, and/or transfer to executors or family members may differ for each category. One should consider what it will take to make things easier for family…” The care and distribution of information can vary from your Facebook account, to your online banking information, so it is critical to consider all these components during estate planning.