National Edition

Digital legacies: How to interact with future generations beyond the grave

Published: Sunday, May 4 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

New and developing technology will allow the living to communicate with an interface that looks, speaks, behaves and stores the memories of a deceased individual. This technology promises to help individuals create a digital legacy.

Wavebreak Media

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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.

Virtual immortality

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.

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