Imagine talking to your deceased grandmother about the summer you spent at the lake together. Or asking a departed Holocaust survivor about remaking his life after enduring the horrors of Nazi labor camps.
These experiences, which sound like the stuff of science fiction, may soon become reality, remaking the very definition of family relationships and bonds across generations.
New technology, some in development and some in use, can allow the living to communicate with an interface that looks, speaks, behaves and contains the memories of a deceased person, which has led some to call it "virtual immortality."
And while this technology promises to help individuals create a legacy beyond photo albums and diaries to pass down to future generations, it concerns some ethicists.
"It harks back to the age-old dilemma behind our quest for immortality: Would it really be ideal if we achieved immortality?" said David Ryan Polgar, a writer, speaker and tech ethicist who examines the legal, ethical, sociological and emotional impact of technology — virtual immortality and Eterni.me
One technology still in development that could serve to connect people with their ancestors is Eterni.me, a program that promises to curate information from a user's activity on social media sites along with photos, emails, geographical location and possibly Fitbit or Google Glass data, according to Marius Ursache, CEO of Eterni.me.
Eterni.me would also help a user create an artificially intelligent avatar (which Ursache called a "chatbot") designed to eventually look, sound and emulate the personality of the user.
"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," Ursache said. "This way, it becomes more accurate and knows more about you in time."
Ursache explained that after a user has passed away, his or her descendants can use Eterni.me (with the ancestor’s chatbot serving as a guide) to sift through their ancestor’s information.
"Your grand-grand-children will use it instead of a search engine or timeline to access information about you — from photos and thoughts on certain topics, to songs you've written but never published, to family events or your opinions on gay or extraterrestrial marriage (if any)," said Ursache.
Another technology that could make people virtually immortal is interactive holograms. It's an idea long-featured by science fiction writers, but it didn't seem close to reality until 2012, when three groups with the goal of preserving important stories came together.
Heather Maio, an exhibition designer at Conscience Display, noticed a problem with preserving the emotional experience of talking to Holocaust survivors.
"Today, Holocaust survivors go into classrooms and tell part of their personal story and take questions from the audience and while the Shoah Foundation has got thousands and thousands of testimonies, (Maio) realized that there was no way to actually maintain that dialogue (when survivors were not present)," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Shoah Foundation, an organization based at the University of Southern California that creates audio-visual interviews with genocide witnesses and survivors.
Maio went to the Shoah Foundation and said survivor stories needed to be portrayed in a more interactive way. That led Shoah to work with the UCS Institute of Creative Technology to create an interactive hologram of Pinchas Gutter, a Polish Holocaust survivor who worked in Nazi labor camps.
Shoah and the Institute of Technology (their collaborative project is called New Dimensions in Testimony) demonstrated how Gutter's hologram can interact with an audience in a classroom concept video. In the video, a life-size, 3-D image of Gutter appeared on a dark, sheer screen. "Do you remember any songs from your youth?" asked a student.
"This is a lullaby that my mother used to sing to me and I still remember it. It's in Polish," said Gutter's hologram. And Gutter's resonant voice filled the room as the hologram sang.
Students (in grades 7-12) and Holocaust survivors that New Dimensions used in test groups responded favorably to the technology, according to Smith.
"Students are surprisingly amazed by the technology," he said. "They are rather captivated by the fact that they can get their question answered."
Virtual immortality barriers
Creating an artificially intelligent interface that stores and prioritizes personal information has its difficulties, Ursache explained. For example, users will have to spend a substantial amount of time interacting with their avatar so the program can understand that photos of the user's firstborn child are more important than their cat photo collections, said Ursache.
The New Dimensions in Testimony project faces different obstacles. The first problem is the dwindling Holocaust survivor population. Smith said the youngest interviewees the New Dimensions project will use in the future will probably be between the ages of 80 and 90 years old.
He added another inherent difficulty of creating holograms is the length of the production process. During Gutter's five-day interview, he was isolated in "a live beach ball with several thousand LED lights pointed at him," said Smith.
He described the interview process as "grueling" because Gutter spent hours answering challenging questions about humanity and finding meaning in life. The process was also tedious because Gutter's hologram needed to be able to say variants of "I didn't understand that. Can you repeat your question?"
"We have to ask the very mundane questions because the system, a little like working with SIRI, has to be able to cope with questions of inappropriate or off-topic or it needs to be able to direct the individual back. … It’s quite a long production process," Smith said.
Though virtual immortality technology can be a useful way to preserve and communicate stories, some ethicists believe certain forms of this technology could be harmful.
Polgar said some fear virtual immortality (and Eterni.me particularly) because it could "decrease the specialness of our humanity."
"If Eterni.me is successful in replicating life-like interactions from someone post-death, it may lessen the importance of living," Polgar said.
Misplaced attribution is also a valid concern with Eterni.me, said Polgar.
"If my post-death avatar says a statement, is it attributable to me? If my loved ones attribute it to me, doesn’t that mean that I have no control over my own statements?" he said.
He added avatars could create confusion because people may conflate a chatbot's words with a real person's statements.
"Consider the confusion that surrounds seeing someone in your dreams. We sometimes wrongly attribute their statements to them as opposed to our subconscious," Polgar said. "It becomes more blurred in the case of a lucid dream, where the dreamer is more conscious of their dream-state and the dream feels more real.
"Although virtual immortality technology would derive from the actions of the deceased, it’s potential for error coupled with a loved one’s attribution of authenticity is troublesome," he said.
In response to concerns like Polgar's, Ursache said he is aware death and virtual immortality are emotionally charged topics and he takes the skepticism seriously. He said people should seek to use technology in a way that does not create "additional harm." He admitted Eterni.me, like all new technology, may bring about unanticipated changes people will have to cope with.
"Think spam, digital privacy and more — these did not exist as concerns for our parents. And it’s difficult for me to predict what habits, good or bad, something like Eterni.me could create," he said.
Virtual immortality's potential
Ursache hopes Eterni.me will help draw generations together and allow individuals to curate their own legacy. "In the future I hope this legacy will provide more value to the family rather than a photo album or some recorded videos," he said.
Smith said holograms like Gutter's, which will be publicly displayed in the Illinois Holocaust Museum sometime next year, can help convey important stories in an innovative manner.
"(New Dimensions is) really about capturing content that is relevant to future generations and not being led by that technology, but being led by experience, and allowing technology to take that in the best way possible," he said. "And that’s really at the heart of it."