THE BLOG
09/23/2014 05:06 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2014

Reconstructing Grandma: How New Technology Can Let Loved Ones Live 'Virtually' Forever

Today, the memories of our loved ones live on longer than ever before. People's lives aren't just remembered by stories and a few lines in an obituary; now it's through a plethora of videos, photos, Facebook pages and even memorial videos on tombstones.

But even with all these options, we still miss our loved ones and often wish, "If only I could bring them back..."

But what if we could bring Grandma or Grandpa back? I'm not talking voodoo or cloning; I'm talking tech.

Technology is advancing so quickly in the areas of video, augmented reality, artificial intelligence and predictive software, that it may be possible in the future to "reconstruct Grandma," to put together all the personal data we have -- videos, photos, the sound of her voice, her Facebook feed, etc. -- and create a hologram of her or a virtual world we can visit whenever we want to see and talk to her.

This may sound creepy to some of us. But for others, it may bring comfort, and perhaps be therapeutic, even. We already have programs like Siri that can answer us differently based on what we say -- so what if, instead of asking Siri how to make cookies, we could ask Grandma for her homemade peanut butter cookie recipe, and hear it in her voice?

Our digital souls

We think of a soul as intangible, something that needs no physical body to exist. If we transfer this logic to the data we have about ourselves -- doctor's records, work history, interviews, vacation videos, photos, etc. -- we can create a "digital soul" of sorts. And in the future, I believe we will have even more outlets to more quickly and efficiently enter our "data" -- our thoughts and emotions, our reactions to political trends or big family news -- and just as many ways to present and interpret that data. All of this will contribute to our digital souls, creating sort of a "data portrait" of each of us. Already, artists like Laurie Frick are experimenting with the convergence of personal data and art, in works like "30 Days of Chatroom Metadata" and "7 Stages, 6 Categories, 264 ALS Patients".

Of course, work like Frick's brings up some important and interesting questions: Who shall have access to your data or Grandma's data? How shall all this data be curated? Will we need to hire firms to sift through this information in order to find the most relevant, and sift out the most embarrassing or negative memories?

These are all questions we must explore, and discuss together, as we move into a hyper-digital world. At the end of the day, we're looking at an age-old question:

If you could live forever, would you want to?

While living forever seemed merely a science-fiction plot twist in the past, it's entirely possible this could happen in the near future, in different permutations.

How close are we?

We are close to passing the Turing Test, a test of a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.

In fact, you may have already been fooled by a robot telemarketing call before realizing it wasn't a human; that robot telemarketer passed the Turing Test for that moment. The movie Her shows a man falling in love with his operating system (OS); through artificial intelligence (AI), the OS is able to react in emotional, intellectual ways, reciprocating feelings and seeming human in every way -- except without a body. Though this is a Hollywood movie, we are not so far away from technology so similar to people that it can fool us. We have Asimo, developed by Honda and touted as "the world's most humanoid robot," and interactive voice response (IVR) solutions for marketing. It's a matter of time before these types of AI are transferred to real, live people.

Several companies are moving into this space, but even they will admit that the potential is there but the products -- and also the public -- are not quite ready. This spring, a group of entrepreneurs led by CEO Marius Ursache launched Eterni.me, a startup that wants to help you be remembered forever. The company

collects almost everything that you create during your lifetime, and processes this huge amount of information using complex Artificial Intelligence algorithms. Then it generates a virtual YOU, an avatar that emulates your personality and can interact with, and offer information and advice to your family and friends, even after you pass away.

Ursache said in an interview with Wired magazine that they will start by uploading data from "text-intensive social networks and environments" such as Facebook, Twitter and email and eventually move on to photos, videos, audio and location data from personal devices. He described the process: "People will also be able to fine-tune their avatar, by regularly interacting with it (think of a daily 10-minute chat where you talk and it picks up more information and refines already existing information, by 'making sense of it.'"

Ursache says they are not yet be ready to add nuance to their product -- such as the AI being equipped to talk differently to the deceased's wife than he would his children -- he sees that happening in the future:

Until then, we want to preserve as much as possible from the information someone generates -- and if you're 30 today, it's likely that by the time you're 45 or 50, the technology will be there. But you need to start preserving this data as soon as possible.

We have many ways or preserving our data now -- Shutterfly, Tumblr, Facebook, a myriad of cloud storage options -- but still more technology is emerging that allows us to increase our data output and/or data storage. For example, the Narrative Clip Lifelogging Camera will continuously snap photos of your life and store it in its own memory bank:

The roughly inch and a half square box clips onto your clothes using a stainless steel clip, and shoots one five-megapixel, geotagged photo every 30 seconds, storing it on built-in memory that holds up to 4,000 pictures... when you plug it in all your photos are automatically uploaded and securely stored on Narrative's cloud servers for viewing via app or browser.

Besides Narrative, smartphone manufacturers and camera-makers are producing increasingly sleeker models with greater resolution and storage. The options for capturing videos, storing them and sharing them are there -- now, the challenge lies in putting it all together, and introducing a way to "reconstruct Grandma" in a way that people won't find creepy.

Human nature, human choice

I think it's really fundamental human nature to want to pass down our family memories, our legacy. Some scientists even theorize our grandmothers' knowledge is essential in propagating our genes. Anthropologists postulate that this extended post-childbearing period has been selected because these grandmothers live on to help their offspring reproduce and survive. The importance of grandma's knowledge being passed on to future generations is what's referred to as the "Grandmother Hypothesis."

But what if Grandma died unexpectedly young or lives hundreds of miles away? How do we connect with that lost generation, and ancestors beyond that?

From pictograms in caves to oral history to the first hieroglyphics, recording our lives for ourselves and future generations is nothing new. Today, we can really only go back one or two generations before the fidelity just drops off; images are faded, writing on the back of the print, illegible, or the photo/document trail completely disappears.

As we look forward five or 10 generations from now, imagine how intense the fidelity of our memories will be! I personally think this will bring us closer together. I think it will be much easier to unite people in the future, that this type of technology can comfort us and create a diminished fear of death. Of course, in this future, you must be able to choose for yourself what you want to do with this technology, what state you want to be in, and how you want your data used.

And before you make up your mind that this notion of "reconstructing Grandma" does, in fact, sound like voodoo, remember this: There was a time, not so long ago, when people refused to have their pictures taken, because they believed the camera would "steal their souls." While some people still believe this, I'm fairly certain most of us have gotten over this fear, as we use our phones more for cameras than for talking. We have to consider that we often fear that which we do not know -- and of course, a virtual world with Grandma in it is something none of us have experienced... yet.