When people die, they leave behind a gaping chasm in the lives of their loved ones. People sometimes talk to the dead. Sometimes they look for the dead to speak back, as centuries of séance and Spiritualism will attest.
Startup Eternime, founded by MIT fellow Marius Ursache, seeks to offer similar comfort. Rather than ghosts or spirits, however, Urasche is using digital avatars and chatbots. He draws inspiration from science fiction, not spirit guides.
Give Eternime access to your social media profiles and the startup's algorithms will scrape your posts and interactions to build a profile. It will see the photo of the muffin you posted to Facebook and the article on retirement finances you shared on LinkedIn. The algorithms will study your memories and mannerisms. They'll learn how to be "you."
The result: a digital copy of you.
"The idea is not original," Urasche says of his zeroes-and-ones reproductions, which he calls "immortal avatars." The avatars, he says, will eventually interact with your loved ones via Eternime's mobile apps.
"'Brain downloading', 'robot clones', 'connecting with the dead' have long been an oddly interesting idea," Urasche told me in an email. "It's one of humanity's biggest dreams (and nightmares as well) -- the ability to transfer someone's mind in a computer."
Eternime was announced in 2014 after Ursache developed the idea during the MIT Entrepreneurship Development Program. He wasn't entirely sure if he should develop the project further and wanted to get a sense of public reaction. In the first four days, 3,000 people signed up at Eterni.me, the company's website, for a private beta. (The service isn't operational yet.)
Then, Urasche received an email from a man dying of terminal cancer.
"Eternime, he wrote, was the last chance to leave something behind for friends and family," Urasche told me. "That was the moment I decided that this was something worth dedicating my life to."
Eternime drew some negative attention when it was announced. Some critics called the idea creepy and others wondered if it was a hoax. Ursache even got death threats.
Since 2014, the Eternime website has largely been silent, although it continues to take names of people who want to test the service. Ursache says the Eternime team has been refining the product over the last two years, testing features, figuring out what will work and what won't. The private beta test is ongoing, and Ursache says the feedback has been positive.
"For us it is really important to emphasize that we do not want to preserve the banalities of the life of a person," Ursache said. Rather, he and his team "would much more like to create a digital legacy that allows your great-grandchildren to interact with their great-grandfather -- and beyond."
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