How you could talk to the deceased online
When a loved one dies, we’re always told that they'll live on. We console ourselves with poignant memories - in the smile they passed onto their daughter, in the smell of a certain perfume they used to wear - while recognising at the same time that we will not get the chance to speak to them again. But it seems this is something destined to change with the birth of digital afterlife. As utterly bizarre as it sounds, give it a year and you could be talking to the deceased online.
The idea of immortality on the internet has long been thrown around, with all sorts of different companies across the world hitting the news for designing various apps and programs. With the arrival of Eter9, and With Me, it was official: mediums who claimed to communicate with the dead were out and digital ghosts were in. With technology advancing at the speed of light with every passing day, what else could we really expect?
Perhaps one of the earliest forms of this type of artificial intelligence was a website called Virtual Eternity. Set up in 2010, the site asked you to take personality tests in order to train your web-based counterpart up to become an expert on you and use this expertise to create a digital persona that would talk to your friends and relatives after you died. In addition, you uploaded a voice profile and photos in order for your social media mirror to use after you died.
But, alas, life after death online wasn’t something that the general public were ready for and the site shut down two years later after only 10,000 people signed up. The lack of enthusiasm highlighted something incredibly obvious about online afterlife: it was freaky as hell.
Nonetheless, public perception appears to have changed dramatically in the years after. Nowadays it seems we are ready and raring to live on with tens of thousands of people signing up for digital immortality on brand new websites popping up all over the internet. One of the latest variations is Eternime, a website which hopes to produce digital versions of our personalities in order for us to post online and talk to our friends and families after our passing.
Eternime works by combining your digital footprint - including anything you’d ever posted to social media, your thoughts and smartphone pictures - with artificial intelligence in order to create a digital model of yourself who will interact with your loved ones - and even your descendants - long after you’re buried and gone. Amazingly, 37,450 people have already signed up and the company expects many more to join in the coming years.
“We only leave behind a few photos, maybe some home videos, or in rare situations, a diary or autobiography,” their website reads. “But eventually, we are all forgotten. What if… You could preserve your parents’ memories forever? You could preserve your legacy for the future? You could live on forever as a digital avatar? Become virtually immortal.”
Looking at the company’s mission statement, it seems anything is possible when it comes to talking to a loved one who has died. Someone’s digital ghost could well post a sarky joke on a self-indulgent status update, post a TBT to the time you went on that infamous holiday to Zante or even have a full on conversation with you over messenger.
Life after death seems a hot moneymaker at the moment for companies who have clocked onto the deceased online market. Eternime, set to launch in 2018, is only one company which is in the midst of using artificial intelligence to revive the dead. In fact, South Korean company Elrois is taking things one step further by planning to enable people to take selfies with computer-simulated versions of their dead loved ones, something that may be perceived as being a step too far.
A member of the company told the BBC that the creators are well aware of how the app could be received, but insists that it is designed to help someone “who has lost their family”. She claimed: “That is for my personal experience. I had my grandmother before and she passed away a few years ago but I really, really regret that she passed away and we didn’t have any pictures together. I cannot take a photo with her anymore so in that case it would be great to use our avatars. It is not fake memories I think because it is 3D, realistic avatars.”
However, the real question is, will the greater public accept their friends and family popping up online to have a good old chinwag? Not to mention, a selfie.
Despite enthusiasm soaring in the past few years, it still seems naive to believe that those who have lost a loved one would happily accept a digitalised version of them. Regardless how much the companies developing the apps insist that they are to comfort those who are missing the departed, it is abundantly clear that a digital footprint is a poor second choice for actually having the person here. It can't be denied that the online version is a fraud and any memories created together are fake. Rather than easing our grief, do the site simply belittle the real life memories we had with our loved ones?
Not to mention that anyone who signs up for it also will be forced to consider several worrying factors. If the system collects our digital footprint in the years before our death, does this mean that we will be forced to remain the same person online forever? I, for one, know that I wouldn’t want my more shameful posts - namely my obsession with Taylor Swift - to define me forever. In addition, what happens when someone gets a little too obsessed with talking to the deceased online? Didn’t Charlie Brooker’s 'Black Mirror' warn us about this? Is the next stage a blank synthetic android that we program our passed loved one’s personality onto?
Whether you love or hate the idea of the online afterlife, there’s no getting away from the fact that it could be here to stay. And that it could signal the beginning of something. If we are due to begin digital immortality, what could we be doing in 50 years time? As uncomfortable as it may make many of us, at least we can rest assured that our loved ones will be tagging us in ridiculous memes for some time to come.
Illustrations by Egarcigu