A new service promises to create virtual versions of its users that their loved ones can interact with after they have died. Eterni.me plans to collect as much data as possible about its users on which to base computer-generated avatars. The company says the experience will be "like a Skype chat from the past."
The idea of recreating the persona of someone who has died is not a new one. Perhaps the most notable recent interpretation of the concept was in an episode of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror TV series, which hinted at the likelihood of such services being developed and asked viewers to consider what impact such technology might have.
Eterni.me is aware of the Black Mirror comparisons and that many people will be uncomfortable with the idea. The company hopes, though, that by being positioned as a tool for accessing memories or researching ancestors rather than for dealing with grief, negativity towards the technology may be curtailed.
"We are very aware of the emotionality that is attached to the topic of death," Marius Ursache, CEO of Eterni.me tells Gizmag. "For us it is really important to emphasize that we do not want to preserve the banalities of the life of a person, but would much more like to create a legacy that allows your grandchildren to interact with their grandfather."
Ursache explains that Eterni.me has already been shaped by feedback and suggestions and says that this will continue, in particular with people's concerns about the service in mind. "We take scepticism of certain user groups very seriously and will try to enter into a mutual exchange with them to make our product even better," he says.
The service has been created out of MIT's Entrepreneurship Development Program. When users sign up, they will link the service to their various digital streams, such as Facebook, Twitter, emails, photos and geo-location history. Once data is being collected, Ursache says there are two main processes required – "making sense" of it and then using it to "emulate" the user.
"Of course, 'making sense' and 'emulating' are still primitive today," he acknowledges. "But by periodically interacting with this avatar, you will allow it to make more sense in the next 30-40 years that you still have to live. This way, it becomes more accurate and knows more about you in time."
The ability of Eterni.me to "make sense" of the data it collects will be key, but is one of the most difficult challenges the company has to tackle. The service will analyze both textual and visual information to choose what information can be used to help an avatar better emulate the user. Direct interactions with the user will help to make the emulation more accurate.
Ursache explains that the end result should be a tool that people can use to find out more about their forbears, such as photos, family events, opinions and hobbies. He likens it to a research tool, such as a search engine or timeline, and is clear that the aim of such technology should be to help people.
"I think technology should make our lives easier, period," he says. "If technology can help with leaving a legacy, or solving other problems for dead people’s relatives and friends – such as inheritance, access to information and so on – we should find a way to use it, of course without creating additional harms."
A private beta of Eterni.me is expected in late 2015 with the public launch expected in 2016.