2014-02-18

Co.Exist

A Creepy New Startup Wants To Create Living Avatars For Dead People

By scanning the digital footprints of our dearly departed and recreating their personality, these MIT entrepreneurs hope to use artificial intelligence to bring them back to life in the virtual world.

Can a robot help you live forever? Not exactly, yet, but it might be able to help you talk to loved ones from the other side of the grave. That’s the creepy premise behind a new startup called Eterni.me, which says that after sorting through all of your Facebook posts, emails, photos, and chats, it can use artificial intelligence to create an avatar that acts "just like you."

As the website explains:

It generates a virtual YOU, an avatar that emulates your personality and can interact with, and offer information and advice to, your family and friends after you pass away. It's like a Skype chat from the past.

Eterni.me founder Marius Ursache says that the idea for the company has been on his mind for some time, fed by ideas like Ray Kurzweil’s singularity and “brain download,” chatbots, and shows like Black Mirror and movies like Her.

“It all took shape after realizing a use which would actually be beneficial for people--beyond the obvious cool sci-fi effect,” he says. “For us, the idea that we can preserve a part of ourselves beyond death, and that someday this will make possible to preserve the knowledge of entire generations of humanity, is a big enough dream.”

He points to the possibility that someday we could virtually interact with avatars of historic figures, along with former family and friends. But for now, it’s still very much an idea rather than a reality. The team is fresh out of MIT's Entrepreneurship Development Program and just beginning to look for funding and to develop the technology.

There are clearly a lot of issues to work out. While the service promises to keep everything you do online so it’s never forgotten, it’s not clear that most people would want all of that information to live forever, or that surviving relatives would get over the inherent weirdness of pretending to talk with someone’s who dead. Still, days after the website launched, 3,000 people had signed up.

For the company, the next steps will be developing the artificial intelligence needed to make everything work. Eventually, if all goes as planned, the program will begin gathering information for its first set of users--using both access to online accounts and by directly talking to the people themselves.

“In order for this to be accurate, collecting the information is not enough--people will need to interact with the avatar periodically, to help it make sense of the information, and to fine-tune it, to make it more accurate,” Ursache says.

The team hopes--perhaps optimistically, considering the scope of the technology that is still yet to be developed--to have a beta version of the service ready by 2015. Whether or not this particular company survives, it raises some questions: For generations that now document every meal on Instagram and every thought on Twitter, what do we want to happen to that information when we're gone? And if artificial intelligence can impersonate us when we're dead, what other more sinister programs might do the same thing while we're still alive?

[Image: Graveyard via Shutterstock]

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