My father passed away four years before my son Gideon was born.
Sure, Gideon has seen old photographs and heard endless family anecdotes; but “Pappy,” understandably, remains frustratingly abstract to him.
According to NBC News, a Silicon Valley startup called Eterni.me is slowly but surely trying to make the dearly departed seem more real to future generations.
The company aims to let people “preserve their most important thoughts, stories and memories in an artificially intelligent system that could ultimately communicate conversationally with others once its creator is gone.”
Yes, via the collection of data from Facebook and other social media, a reasonable facsimile of your vocabulary, preferences and experiences could be accumulated and processed through a neural network.
One form of such a virtual reality avatar is featured on the TV series “Supergirl,” in which the title character sometimes communicates with a high-tech representation of her late Kryptonian mother. (I’m still waiting for a lecture such as, “Your biological clock is ticking, dear. No, wait – that’s just the thermonuclear device you heroically smothered in your bra.”)
Will the avatars become mainstream or flop miserably? No doubt a significant percentage of people will throw themselves into the work of leaving a legacy for their descendants, smugly assuming that every boring life event and every witticism must be preserved for posterity. Of course some people may be TOO egotistical to participate fully. They’ll question whether hypothetical descendants DESERVE the good stuff, so they’ll compromise with watered-down wisdom. (“You can catch more flies with extended warranty offers than you can with vinegar.” “Many hands make light sabers.” “There is no hashmark in ‘team.’” “Let a smile be your galoshes.”)
Having avatars around can help some people with the grieving process – especially if the grief involves more than just death. (“So you blew my inheritance on all those cruises? Guess what? I’m going to start projecting your hologram through a disco ball, Mr. Formal Ballroom Dancing!”)
Skeptics worry that children will have a hard time understanding the nature of the avatars. Kids have enough to worry about with schoolyard bullies and monsters hiding under the bed. Who needs nightmares about Grandpa ditching Grandma to run off with Sir?
I haven’t heard any estimates for the cost of a fully functioning avatar, but we may be entering another situation of the “haves” and the “have nots.” One reader confided in me that if an avatar of her great-uncle is too expensive, she’ll just purchase a parrot with a bad toupee.
I wonder if anyone has considered the danger of avatars being HACKED? Just remember, if your late father’s favorite trick of “pull my finger” is abruptly replaced with an invitation to “let me transfer $10 million from a Nigerian widow’s bank into your own account,” that might not be your (virtual) father!
If avatars do catch on, their proliferation will have a real ripple effect on the economy. Millions of people will find work as fact checkers, keeping the avatars honest. For instance, if your grandfather’s avatar reminisces, “I thought your grandmother was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen,” the fact checker might amend that to “Of course it was a moot point, since I always swung the other way and entered a traditional marriage just to satisfy societal pressures. Uh, be sure not mention this to the avatar of your great-grandparents.”
Danny welcomes email responses at firstname.lastname@example.org and visits to his Facebook fan page “Tyree’s Tyrades.”