Death's icy grip comes for all of us. But what if, theoretically speaking, there were a way to digitally approximate your consciousness and represent it on a screen?
That's the premise driving a new startup called Eterni.me, which emerged this week out of MIT's Entrepreneurship Development Program. Its goal, according to the startup's website, is to emulate your personality by tapping into your digital paper trail—chat logs, emails, and the like. Once that information is provided, an algorithm splices together all those you-isms to build an artificial intelligence based on your personality, which "can interact with and offer information and advice to your family and friends after you pass away."
Eterni.me's creators pitch it as Skype from the past—an animated avatar from the dearly departed. A kind of digital immortality.
Creepy? For some, maybe. In actuality, the idea of a robotic alter-you has been around for decades—we just called them chat bots. "Joseph Weizenbaum created a fake therapist called Eliza at MIT in the 1960s, and there are Turing Test competitions to see if they can pass for human," writes the Guardian's Jack Schofield. "So far, they have not been very convincing, but increases in computer power and new developments in data mining should improve things."
Eterni.me's creators claim their aim isn't to bring back the dead, per se. Rather, the hope is that all the lost information buried away on a loved one's dusty computer can be preserved and presented to friends and family via an interface that—in a strange way—might make sense. "We're very aware we're not creating a digital clone or anything creepy," Eterni.me CEO Marius Ursache told Fast Company in an email, "but an interface for accessing memories."
Some people might feel uncomfortable staring into pixels arranged to represent a lost loved one. That's understandable. But no one wants to be forgotten, and the notion that we're somehow able to transcend death and live on in our words is an idea that pre-dates Shakespeare, or even Homer. Could Eterni.me actually be onto something?
"Once family and friends pass away, the memory of that person fades away. We are forgotten," said Ursache. "Sometimes, things we'd like to pass to further generations get forgotten or lost too. And we want to prevent that."