In the 1993 film “My Life” doctors tell Bob Jones, played by Michael Keaton, that he is dying of cancer and has just four months to live.
Around the same time, Jones learns that his wife, played by Nichole Kidman, is pregnant. And so Jones did something that was way ahead of his time, yet inevitably strapped to the technology of that age—he begins making home videos of himself for the son he will never see. The idea is that the boy to be, although never having a chance to know his real father, will know a virtual version of his father via the videotapes, which show the lad how to achieve in the bread and butter moments of life, such as walking into a room of important people, and shaving.
The movie is sweet and the videos that Michael Keaton’s character makes for the future boy are playful and touching. In fact, it is all a bit too sweet—“the movie’s real flaw,” wrote well-known film critic Roger Ebert, “is its cuteness.” Now fast-forward 20 years, to a much more 21st-century version of this concept. Which is to say, a much darker, and more technologically advanced—and social media affected—version of this concept. Michael Keaton’s cutesy little videos have become an all too real, and frighteningly believable three-dimensional post-mortal avatar in the now-famous “Be Right Back” episode of the popular British sci-fi television show Black Mirror.
The episode follows Matha and Ash, a young couple in love who move to the country seeking a life of bucolic bliss. But unfortunately they don’t find it, Ash is killed almost immediately in a tragic car accident. Unable to cope with the loss, Martha tries out a new service that folds his past online communications and social media profiles into a new virtual Ash. At first, Ash is an app on her phone that can text and send videos. Later, Martha uploads more content and the Ash app can talk to her. Eventually, she downloads the latest version of the program and the new virtual Ash, reconstructed from the digital droppings left behind by the old Ash, takes on the form of an android that can breathe and touch her and play with their child.
Now, this Black Mirror episode still belongs to the world of TV and movies and fiction. But whereas Michael Keaton in “My Life” felt like a guy doing his best to play his role in a movie, the magic of Be Right Back is that Ash and Matha feel disturbingly real. You are not watching a television show, so much as—and let’s give the show credit for its genius name—watching a mirror. Black Mirror has taken the TV world by storm for its uncanny ability to accurately play out the real-life dramas of our awkward and desensitized digital age. And the episode with Ash and Martha has been considered one of the series’ best. But the point is, post-mortal avatars are no longer just the stuff of fanciful movie and television pondering. The day of the post-mortal avatar has arrived. They are here now, and while the products being offered may still be here in the digital, and not here in the flesh like Ash in the Be Right Back episode, these products are increasingly becoming important economic commodities.
“The digital afterlife industry (DAI) has become big business,” stated a report on digital remains by the Oxford Internet Institute that was released this past April. One of the plushest players is the California-based company Eterni.me, whose website provocatively and straight-forwardly asks: “What if You could live on forever as a digital avatar? And people in the future could actually interact with your memories, stories, and ideas, almost as if they were talking to you?” The site’s services sound hauntingly like that of the company in the Black Mirror episode. As an article in Metro UK that was shared more than 135 million times stated: “Eterni will collect data from a participant’s history on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Foursquare and Google – as well as photo and email files – and use artificial intelligence algorithms to create a virtual persona. This avatar will then communicate with living relatives through video or instant messaging.” Um, right. So we are already talking about Ash version 1.0, and soon the Eterni avatar will speak to you and sound just like you. Then comes the scary time, version 3.0…
At this point, more than 42,000 people have signed up for Eterni.me’s service, according to the website. Some critics have chastised the company. “We have others who say that what we do is creepy and wish us to go to hell or fail,” Eterni.me co-founder Marius Ursache told Metro UK. But Ursache also stated that a certain group of people has expressed especially strong interest in the service. “The most emotional thing is we’ve received messages from people who are terminally ill and would want to use our product as soon as it’s available,” said Ursache. And this may be in part because a close read of the service Eterni.me is providing reveals that as much as the company is offering a person the chance to build a virtual avatar that perfectly mimics themselves, they are also offering people the chance to build a fantasy avatar, that expands upon their self. “We do not want to preserve the banalities of the life of a person,” Ursache explained to Metro UK, “but would like to create a legacy.” And how exciting that you, the author of your own avatar, have a hand in determining the form of your own legacy.
The Eterni.me website states that they regard their service as an important step toward creating “a library that has people instead of books…an interactive history of the current and future generations.” And when examined like this, one realizes that a post-mortal avatar product has use beyond just that of emotional grieving support and personal legacy making. It has business potential. A recent article in MIT Technology Review lays out the product that Hossein Rahnama, a visiting professor at MIT’s Media Lab, is developing. Hossein’s product, Augmented Eternity, might sound a bit like Eterni.me. It is essentially a digital persona that can interact with people on your behalf after you’re dead. But Hossein points out that a significant use of Augmented Eternity would be in the business world. The MIT Technology Review lays out the situation best:
“Rahnama is creating a digital avatar for the CEO that they both hope could serve as a virtual ‘consultant’ when the actual CEO is gone. Some future company executive deciding whether to accept an acquisition bid might pull out her cell phone, open a chat window, and pose the question to the late CEO. The digital avatar, created by an artificial intelligence platform that analyzes personal data and correspondence, might detect that the CEO’ had a bad relationship with the acquiring company’s execs. ‘I’m not a fan of that company’s leadership,’ the avatar might say, and the screen would go red to indicate disapproval.”
One can immediately see the value of such a product. Business luminaries like Steve Jobs, who died before their time, would now be able to be preserved, at least in spirit, and words and advice. A future version of Augmented Eternity might even be able to embody a small part of the creative genius of an individual like Jobs, and issue out business advice and insights that are truly game-changing. But the corporate avatar need not be an epic creative genius like Steve Jobs to become a game-changer for the business world. As the MIT article points out, even a lesser version of a professional can provide a valuable service.
“AI could help transform your professional expertise from a scattered written record to a representation of your knowledge that people can interact with,” says the MIT article. “A lawyer who charges hundreds of dollars an hour could let people consult a digital avatar instead, for a much lower price. Celebrities, politicians, and other public figures could outsource some of their public interaction to digital versions of themselves. AI would allow us to consult experts with whom we’d never be able to meet in real life.” By this point, you should be pretty wowed. And the reason, at least for me, that this is all so mind-blowing, is that the technology does not seem very far-fetched, but rather it seems utterly attainable.
Just how attainable became clear with the case of Roman Mazurenko, a well-liked Russian designer who was known in both Russian and Silicon Valley circles. He was tragically killed while crossing the street in Moscow in 2015. The accident devastated Mazurenko’s friends and family, the grief was tremendous. His best friend, Eugenia Kuyda, had co-founded a Silicon Valley artificial intelligence company called Luka, and she began playing with the idea of recreating a digital version of Mazurenko using his old videos and photos and text messages. Nearly a dozen friends and family members agreed to share their cache of messages with the project, and eventually, the post-mortal Mazurenko was born. Now, friends and family of the man can access his digital avatar via an app on their phones, for comfort, or advice, or just to talk.
But is this a good thing? Is it a bad thing? Is it a healthy way to mourn? Or does it promote an unhealthy fetishization of the dead? As an article in the popular online magazine, The Verge, explains: “Modern life all but ensures that we leave behind vast digital archives — text messages, photos, posts on social media — and we are only beginning to consider what role they should play in mourning.” Essentially, we just do not know yet. We are just beginning to walk down the weird road of the post-mortal avatar, and we still don’t know where it shall lead.
One thing is for sure, that road is now open for business. Eterni.me co-founder Marius Ursache told Metro UK that he was confident afterlife avatars are coming. The reason it will happen was simple, he said. “Nobody wants to be forgotten.”