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by Larry Magid
This post first appeared in the Mercury News

Listen to “Sharing your legacy and animating your ancestors” on Spreaker.
Larry speaks with GoodTrust cofounder, Daniel Sieberg.

Abraham Lincoln died in 1865, but I just created a 15-second video where he comments on today’s divided union. The voice may not sound exactly like his, but you can hear him speak and see his lips move.

If I didn’t create it myself or know that moving pictures, let alone talkies, weren’t around during his time, I might think it was a real video. I also made an animated video of my deceased father speaking to family members. You can view both videos at the end of this post.

I made these videos using GoodTrust’s Life Stories, which is part of a subscription package from GoodTrust. that also includes tools for estate planning, digital protection (including a digital vault and password manager) and a digital executor that will close or preserve online accounts after one dies.

In an interview, GoodTrust co-founder and CMO Daniel Sieberg (who was once my colleague at CBS News) said that the company offers a range of services because “protecting what matters is a little different for everybody.”

Sieberg said that it’s typical for people to take as many as 25 images a day with their phones, and I didn’t need him to tell me that most of these images will never be shared, let alone preserved for generations to come. With this new service, you can not only upload pictures for those who may survive you, but animate them and add voice, whether you took them today, scanned them from your photos, perhaps of deceased relatives or downloaded them.

One of the first questions I asked him was about the potential misuse of this powerful technology. With my deceased father’s image, I recorded a positive message for the whole family, but I could have just as easily put words into his mouth like “I loved Larry more than my other children.” That, however, would be been unethical.  It’s also possible to use this technology to put words into the mouth of a public figure, living or dead as I admittedly did with Abraham Lincoln.

On its website, GoodTrust has an AI ethics pledge which says, in part, “With new technologies come new responsibilities. We know this is a nascent technology and is cause for concern when it comes to accuracy, privacy, and ethical use.”

The company acknowledges that “some people are concerned about ‘deep fakes’ or trying to fool the public or individuals and say it wants “to help lead these discussions and explorations and we want to assure you that we’re mindful of these sensitivities and considerations.”

To that end, the letters “AI” are embedded in videos created using Life Stories which provides some transparency, though some might not realize that those letters mean that the video was created via artificial intelligence and could be misleading. Still, it’s a good start.

When it comes to AI ethics, GoodTrust is the least of my worries. There are unscrupulous people who have used AI to create deep fakes for malicious or misleading purposes, and some of them are almost impossible to distinguish from the real thing.

My Lincoln video is obviously a fake, and I think it’s OK to use this technology for historical, educational and even comedic and parody purposes, as long as it’s not deceptive.

Your digital archives

In addition to the clever use of AI to animate and add voice to photos, a GoodTrust subscription may make good sense for other reasons. Sadly, it’s a fact of life that we’re all going to die and, after having helped settle the estates of deceased relatives, I know how important it is to have access to documents, photos, last wishes and other things that person left behind.

When my relatives died, I and other family members were able to find plenty of photos, possessions and paper documents in drawers and on walls and shelves throughout their homes. Most of my deceased relatives didn’t even have computers, smartphones or social media accounts. But today, that’s where people are storing their precious memories along with other essential information such as their financial accounts and records, wills and trusts and digital assets like their music collections and books, which are often either downloaded or streamed from services like Spotify or Amazon Kindle. Unfortunately, according to an AARP post, “Most digital content can’t be passed on to heirs” because of licensing agreements stated in their terms of service. That’s sad. Some of my most precious books and records came from deceased family members.

When my relatives passed on, all we had to do was walk around their homes or peer through drawers to unearth everything we needed to settle their estate, transfer funds or remember them by, but it won’t be so easy for those we leave behind unless we take action to make sure they have access.

That’s why — whether you use GoodTrust, another service or just make sure your survivors know how to find your online documents and accounts, it’s important to think about your digital legacy. At the very least, you should inform them — perhaps with a document stored with your will or trust — of all the accounts they need to access. When my sister died, I was able to find bank and financial statements in her drawers, but if you have paperless access, your relatives might not even know where you keep your money and what, if any, life insurance you have.

Also, consider your social media legacy. Facebook has a help page about setting up a “legacy contact.” The Verge has an article titled How to arrange for your digital legacy that also covers Apple, Google, Twitter and Instagram.

Abraham Lincoln, who knew something about a nation divided, talks about today’s divisiveness

Larry’s father, who died in 1970, “speaks” to his children and his grandchildren who he never got to meet while he was alive.

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