Earlier this year, start-up Eterni.me emerged from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Entrepreneurship Development program. The company’s tagline – “simply become immortal” – quickly attracted media headlines.
Eterni.me is developing a set of algorithms that will learn to emulate a dead person’s personality by analysing digital footprint of the dead. The algorithms would then function as an artificial intelligence for a 3D avatar, which could:
interact with and offer information and advice to your family and friends after you pass away.
Eterni.me develops a representation of an individual’s personality through algorithms, pattern matching and data mining. The company will collect:
almost everything that you create during your lifetime and process … this huge amount of information using complex Artificial Intelligence algorithms.
This incorporates data from:
Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, photos, video, location information, and even Google Glass and Fitbit devices.
A public launch could be up to five years away as the company waits for advances in artificial intelligence applications. But, despite this wait, within weeks of the start-up’s launch, tens of thousands of users had signed up on a waiting list for the service. Marius Ursache, Eterni.me’s chief executive, is publicly confident of the company’s success, because, as he puts it: “Nobody wants to be forgotten.”
The company has emerged from a wider research and development context, where a range of projects and companies are working towards the goal of digital immortality. New media commentator Adam Ostrow outlined the possibilities of this field in his 2011 TED talk, “After Your Final Status Update”. He argues that computers will soon be able to:
[U]nderstand human language and process [and] analyse an entire life’s worth of content … it’s going to become possible for our digital personas to continue to interact in the real world long after we’re gone …
Ostrow went on to anticipate a future where the collective content uploaded will be embedded in robotic or holographic representations of the deceased, which could interact with the living based on the archive of content produced by a person over a lifetime.
For the likes of Ostrow, Eterni.me is just the beginning signs of a computer-assisted immortality, a dream that sounds like a plot from a science-fiction novel. But these “digital afterlives” raise a range of important ethical issues around what it means to be a person.
The concept of personhood is directly linked to being able to act in the world in relation to other living beings. In the contemporary West dying is increasingly linked to hospitalisation and palliative care. In these spaces denying or relieving the dying of authority and decision-making is common.
As health anthropologist Julia Lawton has explained, this allows people to slowly “fall out of the category of personhood” as they prepare for death.
In contrast, these new technologies directly challenge those contemporary cultural and social rituals that presume a diminishment of personhood around death. These research and development efforts work towards giving the dead a limited form of digital agency and potentially allowing them to intervene in a much more capable fashion than when they were alive, such as when they were elderly or terminally ill and close to their biological death.
Furthermore, if personhood partly rests on being able to act in the world in relation to the living, once we consider technologies such as Eterni.me, things become complicated.
What is the cultural and social status of this digital persona? Do they have an economic and legal status? How are our own duties and rights as living beings measured against theirs? How should the living treat, engage and interact with these entities? Is it possible to maintain intimacy through shared interaction with the dead?
If digital personae can effectively act in the world, how does a notion of personhood accommodate them? Or to put it another way, where our only point of social contact is through Twitter, and the deceased tweet, are they still “people” of the same order as those who tweeted us before death?
Interestingly, these services could be limited by their own technological innovation. Consistency is privileged by pattern-matching analytics. Improvisation, surprise or other unpredictable actions that living people always engage in are, at best, clumsily simulated by randomising functions.
It may be easier for these services to mimic a target than to engage in random acts. But the ability for people to say or do something utterly unpredictable is an important marker of being human. That’s difficult to achieve in digital efforts toward a social immortality, and so these innovations may ultimately disappoint consumers.
Eterni.me’s work is largely speculative at the moment. The company is yet to produce a “living” avatar of a dead person. But we suggest the presence of a digital afterlife is not just a novelty, as various commercial services have presented it.
Instead it challenges us to rethink what it means to be a person and raises a host of issues that are important to address as this and other efforts towards digital immortality emerge.
The Conversation is currently running a series on Death and Dying.