Technology

A US company plans to use our social media presence to create a virtual avatar that will live on after we die. But will loved ones want to message us after we’ve departed? By Gillian Terzis.

US start-up Eterni.me aims to create virtual immortality

Self-preservation is one of humanity’s most fundamental drives. The finality of death marks the end not only of our physical lives but also of our interior ones. As time passes and memories recede, we will be forgotten, our legacies destined to fade. 

Technology has long tried to challenge this fact of evolution. Adherents of the cryonics movement suggest that a dead body – drained of blood, injected with antifreeze and preserved in liquid nitrogen – could be resuscitated at a later date with the person’s memory, personality and identity intact. This is because these qualities do not require continuous brain activity to survive.  

Like the cryonics movement, US start-up Eterni.me is enamoured with the possibility of living for eternity. Its website reads: “We all pass away sooner or later, leaving only a few memories behind for family, friends and humanity – and eventually we are forgotten. But what if you could be remembered forever?”

Founded by three engineers from MIT, Eterni.me claims to have created a solution to this quandary: virtual immortality. Eterni.me trawls through a user’s personal data – such as their Facebook and Twitter profiles, emails, photos, geolocation history and information from a user’s Google Glass and Fitbit devices – and feeds this data into an artificial intelligence algorithm that generates a “virtual you”. The result is a 3D avatar that resembles you and emulates your personality, which can then interact with friends or family once you’ve died. 

The emulation is “still primitive”, Eterni.me’s 37-year-old CEO Marius Ursache says, “but periodic interaction with the avatar will allow it to make more sense in 30 or 40 years”. The fidelity of data depends on the duration of its collection. Ideally, a whole life’s worth of information will make the experience more “realistic and immersive”. 

I can’t help but think of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian TV show Black Mirror, which predicted the existence of a service that used social media output to generate a virtual persona, as well as a synthetic clone in the flesh. In one episode, a grieving woman, Martha, uses such a service not only to emulate her deceased boyfriend, Ash, but also to fill the emotional void created by his absence. Ursache counts the show among his influences, along with Ray Kurzweil’s singularity theory and seminal science fiction authors Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick. 

The idea’s origins date back 10 years, when Ursache wanted to create a website navigated by a chatbot that would “learn new things based on questions it receives over time”. There are plans to open up the service in private beta mode some time in late 2015, although no date has been attached to a full-scale public launch. “The technology is still far from perfect,” Ursache admits, but that hasn’t tempered public curiosity – some 20,000 people have signed up to the start-up’s mailing list. 

Ursache stresses that the purpose of the avatar is not to replace a loved one, but “about curating a digital legacy during your lifetime”. He envisages that interacting with the avatar will be like a “Skype chat from the past”, allowing people to learn about the livelihoods, hobbies and interests of their forebears. 

Users will be encouraged to chat with the avatar regularly, which would train the avatar to develop more life-like conversational skills over time. Similar experiments are undertaken when scientists conduct a Turing test, an experiment that judges whether a machine has acquired a level of intelligence indistinguishable from a human being. On June 8, much debate ensued after it was reported that a supercomputer had apparently passed the test for the first time in history, fooling 33 per cent of the judges into thinking they were chatting to Eugene Goostman, a 13-year-old Ukrainian schoolboy. 

But Robbie Fordyce, a PhD candidate and social media researcher at the University of Melbourne’s School of Culture and Communication, says that this could be problematic for Eterni.me, because instead of using a preconstructed database for its algorithms, it uses a person’s social media profile. “It’s not a growing, developing thing,” says Fordyce, “because there’s only so much it can do.” He likens an Eterni.me avatar to a photograph. “The person never gets old. [He or she] continues to stay the same way.” 

Talking to the avatar more may improve its vocabulary, but it won’t necessarily mimic the dead person’s behaviours and personality traits with greater accuracy. Fordyce says it’s more likely that the avatar would “become a reflection of you” rather than a simulation of the dead person. In effect, you’d be talking to a version of yourself. 

In many Anglophone cultures, grief is typically seen as a private emotion. Aside from wearing black at funerals, one’s mourning status is usually undisclosed to the public. An article penned by academics at the University of Bath’s Centre for Death & Society posits that this is because traditionally “the dying and the dead have been [sequestered in] special places such as hospitals, hospices and cemeteries where they will not disturb the everyday flow of modern life”. 

But spend enough time on the internet and the effects of technology on the way we experience grief become ever more apparent. Online shrines to loved ones, pet cyber-cemeteries and celebrity memorials thrive. Some US and Asian funeral companies engrave QR codes into tombstones that, once scanned by a smartphone, take users to an online memorial page. Technology has socialised the rituals of grief, allowing the bereaved to share the burden of their pain with others. Heaven is unlikely to be found in the sky, but there’s something much like it in cyberspace. 

But Eterni.me’s avatar could blur the boundaries between life and death, making its role in the grieving and bereavement process somewhat more troublesome. “Most of our funereal practices are built around predictable rituals, rather than dredging up memories of [the dead],” Fordyce says. “My problem is not so much about the effect on the dead person, but what it could do to the living.” Is it healthy, for example, to maintain a communicative bond with someone who has died? Can the knottiness of grief be untangled by neat resolutions? 

Psychology professor at the University of Central Lancashire John Archer wrote in his book, The Nature of Grief, that the emotion “represents an alarm reaction set off by a deficit signal in the behavioural system underlying attachment”. Simply put, grief is the price we pay for forming relationships; it is a signal of our need for human company. But psychologists remain divided over the trait’s evolutionary purpose: is it testament to our evolving humanity, or is it a defect in our quest for survival?

Ursache acknowledges that death will be forever bound up with emotion, admitting that detractors have called Eterni.me’s premise “creepy”. Unsurprisingly, grief is not mentioned once on the website. Which is probably why Eterni.me explicitly focuses on preserving memory, humanity’s other shortcoming. Eterni.me’s promotional material suggests the following sample conversation with an avatar: “Hello Mike! Remember that time we went fishing?” Yet death, grief and memory are necessarily intertwined. A person may want to be remembered in death, but surely the living also require respite from pain. Grief, at its very core, is about the longing for a shared experience that has ceased to exist. The capacity to forget may be crucial to moving on. 

Technology’s greatest promise is that it makes life more bearable almost instantly. Eterni.me may yet deliver on that promise, as it meets and exceeds expectations of what technology could and should provide its users. Gadgets and social media fads may come and go, but it’s difficult to deny an appeal to human instinct: striving for a permanent legacy online or offline is a sure-fire way to hedge against our eventual obscurity.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 21, 2014 as "Rest in tweets". Subscribe here.

Gillian Terzis
is a San Francisco-based writer.

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