Humans have sought immortality since at least the 22nd century B.C., if the ancient story "Epic of Gilgamesh" is any indication. And if we're looking for biological immortality, we might have to keep looking. But if you don't mind living a virtual life, immortality might be yours for the taking.
Our new digital lives have opened up countless ways for us to express thoughts and share ideas, particularly on social media. While you're busy posting your latest selfie, something much more meaningful is happening. With each photo you take or message you write, technology is slowly capturing digital artifacts of your life. Artifacts that someday not too far from now might be reassembled into your virtual avatar.
Instead of flipping through photo albums, imagine if your great-grandchildren walk over to the latest voice-controlled computer of their day and say, "I want to talk to grandma." In just seconds, a "virtual you" is projected into the room ready for a quick conversation. Your thoughts, stories, favorite phrases and even mannerisms are all correct. Sounds far-fetched, but not as much as you might think.
In fact, there are several companies who promise to collect your digital content and create a virtual you, including Eterni.me, LifeNaut and LIVESON.
Created by a team of engineers who met at MIT, Eterni.me is a website that promises to collect "almost everything that you create during your lifetime." From your content, Eterni.me then promises to generate an "avatar that emulates your personality" and can talk with your family and friends even after you pass away.
Another website, called LifeNaut, allows you to create a "mindfile," a digital archive of your "unique and essential" characteristics. Started by the Terasem Movement Foundation, LifeNaut hopes that intelligent software of the future will be able to "replicate an individual's consciousness."
In 2010, Terasem initiated the Bina48 robot, a humanoid robot whose information or "mindfile" is based on Bina Rothblatt, one of Terasem's co-founders. Bina48 interacts with humans via voice and attempts to recognize faces and remember names, as you can see in this 2010 video.
Hanson Robotics, the Texas-based laboratory of David Hanson, built Bina48's robotic torso. Hanson has helped work on other robots including Albert Hubo, in the likeness of Albert Einstein, and Jules, a life-like android commissioned by the University of West England. Here's a video of him:
In this second video, Jules expresses his desire to remain with his creators instead of moving to England. While his speech and expressions are quite realistic, the uncanniest details are his emotions, which range from travel anxiety to love.
Perhaps a humanoid robot isn't for you? Another website, LIVESON, offers to continue tweeting on your behalf once you're gone. LIVESON uses artificial intelligence software to analyze your Twitter feed and learn your taste and syntax. The service asks you to select an executor who will activate your "social afterlife" following your death.
Unfortunately, the promise of virtual immortality is probably still a few years away. While LifeNaut is accepting new users, Eterni.me isn't, and LIVESON is only available to a group of 500 beta testers.
Regardless of whether you want a virtual avatar or humanoid robot taking over where you left off, your digital content is an important record of your life. And there are various websites that help store digital information and plan what should happen to it in the event of death.
In the virtual world, death used to be the final log-off. In the not-too-distant future, a virtual life might be just what Gilgamesh was seeking.