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Robert Kardashian: should technology be used to bring people back from the dead?

As if 2020 couldn’t get any weirder, the Kardashian-West family recently made headlines after projecting a hologram of deceased lawyer and father Robert Kardashian as part of a gift for Kim Kardashian-West’s 40th birthday.

It will come as no surprise that Kim’s birthday gift was given to her by husband Kanye West. All it takes is a quick Google search to find out even a few of the weird and wacky things Kanye has done throughout his career, the most recent and infamous being his decision to run for president.

In honour of Kim’s birthday celebrations, Kanye chose to gift Kim a three-minute hologram video of her late father speaking about how proud he is of her and all of her achievements. Anyone who’s seen the hologram is I’m sure aware of how eerily accurate it is as a representation of Robert Kardashian, the businessman and attorney who became internationally famous for his role as one of O.J. Simpson’s defense attorneys and close friends.

Robert passed away of oesophageal cancer in 2003, leaving behind his four children, Kourtney, Kim, Khloé and Rob, from his first wife Kris who have all seen international success with their hit reality show Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

In the short hologram video, Robert explains how proud he is of Kim’s decision to become a lawyer and, in a speech that anyone would be hard up to not shed a tear at, shares: “I watch over you and your sisters and brother and the kids every day.”

I can’t imagine that anyone would want to deny Kim and her siblings the chance to hear their father’s voice once again, albeit in hologram form and artificially created. After losing their father so prematurely, it would be cruel and overly critical of anyone to say that the Kardashian children, and Robert’s now grandchildren don’t deserve to experience the comfort of seeing and hearing their deceased relative in any form that they can.

If the hologram was appreciated and enjoyed by Kim, the recipient of the gift, then it’s not really for anyone else to question otherwise

Kim tweeted: “I can’t even describe what this meant to me and my sisters, my brother, my mom and closest friends to experience together. Thank you so much Kanye for this memory that will last a lifetime.”

If the hologram was appreciated and enjoyed by Kim, the recipient of the gift, then it’s not really for anyone else to question otherwise.

The technology behind the Kardashian hologram didn’t actually involve any holograms at all. It’s based on an optical illusion, called Pepper’s Ghost, which dates back to the 19th century and involves using a beam splitter in reverse, combining two images to make the audience see a hologram projection.

Created by the company Kaleida, the image of Robert Kardashian was made using Holonet, a technology which gives the appearance of real people being a 3D video. The same technology was used most famously in a 2012 MTV performance which resurrected the diseased rapper Tupac Shakur. Back then, the technology cost between $100,000 and $400,000 – something that shows just how elite the price tag on these ‘holograms’ are.

Although holograms were invented in the 1940s by Dennis Gabor, the technology to make them usable in a commercial or personal setting still isn’t quite there. They are used in medical study and anatomy to allow students and medical professionals to visualise aspects of the body and lots of progress has been made since the 1950s in 3D technology, but making interactive holograms to be used in settings outside academia and study is difficult as you can’t always see them from every angle.

Holograms also rely a lot on the environmental qualities and atmosphere of the room, with small things such as vibrations and air affecting how well they can operate. It is thought that the technology to make them usable in all settings probably won’t be discovered until the 2040s.

This hasn’t stopped elusive artificial tech companies for the rich and famous producing futuristic technology like this for a private, elite market. Artistry in Motion is a company which creates holograms of the dead for an exclusive market, claiming on their website, to “bring a futuristic edge to the present.” They say: “when family members pass away, it is natural to want to honor them in the most special way possible.”

Respect for the dead is unfortunately what has created a great backlash against holograms such as the one gifted by Kanye. In the past, we’ve seen holograms created of people like Amy Winehouse and Ronald Reagan using a similar kind of technology but they were used in museums and settings designed to pay respect to their lives and careers. With the hologram of Robert Kardashian being used in such a personal setting, it begs the question of how far we are going to go with allowing anyone to bring up images of people who are no longer with us. It’s no secret that fraternities and elite societies at universities across the world, among other events, have been called out relentlessly over the years for going too far. What’s stopping anyone who can afford the prices that these companies charge mustering up the images of people like Hitler and claiming it to be a joke?

Countries like Mexico that celebrate the dead in festivals like Día de los Muertos have a much more open relationship with death; this lies in stark contrast with countries like the UK who are much less open-minded when it comes to death

A lot of the social media reaction to Robert Kardashian’s hologram being shared all over the internet seemed to be in shock to the reality of the hologram. Seeing a dead person in visual form, hearing their voice and basically watching them as if they were in the room with you is not to everyone’s preference and in cultures like ours, which has a very complicated and closed-off attitude to death, makes it difficult for people to understand the nature of the hologram. Countries like Mexico that celebrate the dead in festivals like Día de los Muertos have a much more open relationship with death; this lies in stark contrast with countries like the UK who are much less open-minded when it comes to death.

The one aspect of the hologram which has been heavily challenged is Robert saying that Kanye is the “most, most, most, most, most genius man in the whole world”. For me, this felt cheap and self-serving. If the hologram was supposed to be for the benefit of Kim hearing her father once again talk about her childhood and getting the reassurance that she’s making him proud – why was it necessary for Kanye to give himself a very public pat on the back like that?

It’s hard to ignore how elite and out of reach the technology is for ordinary people

While it was undoubtedly well-received among members of the Kardashian-West family and appreciated entirely by Kim, it’s hard to ignore how elite and out of reach the technology is for ordinary people. Kanye hasn’t said how much it cost him to create the hologram but it’s certain that it most probably was not cheap. I’m sure there are lots of people out there who have lost relatives that would pay good money to hear their voices and see them one more time but sadly, it’s unlikely that they’ll ever have the funds to afford this kind of hologram. As technology gets more affordable and these kinds of holograms are produced by more companies, it is possible that we might see them used more widely but for now, the ordinary person is left to look at photographs and videos of their dead relatives.

Robert Kardashian wasn’t able to consent to his image being used like this and he never said those words himself. But none of that really matters to his family and his children who he left behind

The ethical concerns raised with doing something like this, let alone anything that involves the words and actions of people who are no longer with us, are self-evident. Robert Kardashian wasn’t able to consent to his image being used like this and he never said those words himself. But none of that really matters to his family and his children who he left behind.

If it provides them comfort and they’re happy to pay for it, let them get on with it. Who knows – with the rate that technology is progressing, we could be seeing anyone who’s ever walked the earth broadcast into our front rooms in years to come, and is it even that different to watching something on your TV screen with a dead actor in it? Even this would have felt impossible and strange years and years ago.

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