Companies are creating 'limited immortality' with artificial intelligence
When Andrew Kaplan reminisces, his engrossing tales leave the impression that he's managed to pack multiple lives into a single existence: globe-trotting war correspondent in his 20s, member of the Israeli army who fought in the Six-Day War, successful entrepreneur and, later, author of numerous spy novels and Hollywood scripts.
Now - as the silver-haired 78-year-old unwinds with his wife of 39 years in a suburban oasis outside Palm Springs, California - he has realized he would like his loved ones to have access to those stories, even when he's no longer alive to share them. Kaplan has agreed to become "AndyBot," a virtual person who will be immortalized in the cloud for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years.
If all goes according to plan, future generations will be able to "interact" with him using mobile devices or voice computing platforms such as Amazon's Alexa, asking him questions, eliciting stories and drawing upon a lifetime's worth of advice long after his physical body is gone.
Someday, Kaplan - who playfully refers to himself as a "guinea pig" - may be remembered as one of the world's first "digital humans."
"Being a pioneer at my age is kind of unexpected," he said, "but I figured, why the hell not?"
For decades, Silicon Valley futurists have sought to unchain humanity from the corporeal life cycle, viewing death as yet another transformational problem in need of a "life altering" solution. What began with the cryonics movement, in which bodies are frozen for future resuscitation, has intensified amid the rise of digital culture. Today, a new generation of companies are hawking some approximation of virtual immortality - the opportunity to preserve one's legacy online forever.
On its website, Eternime claims that more than 44,000 people have already signed up to partake in its "big hairy audacious goal" - turning the "memories, ideas, creations and stories of billions of people" into intelligent avatars that look like them and live on indefinitely. Nectome, a research company specializing in memory preservation, hopes its high-tech brain-embalming process will someday allow our minds to be reanimated as a computerized simulation.
HereAfter, an allusion to the future as well as the eternal, is the startup that Kaplan has embraced, eager to become one of the world's first virtual residents, partly because he considers the effort a way to extend intimate family bonds over multiple generations. The company's motto - "Never lose someone you love" - reflects Kaplan's reasons for signing up.
"My parents have been gone for decades, and I still catch myself thinking, 'Gee, I would really like to ask my mom or dad for some advice or just to get some comfort,' " he said. "I don't think the urge ever goes away."
"I have a son in his 30s, and I'm hoping this will be of some value to him and his children someday," he added.
The rituals surrounding death may be as diverse as the cultures they spring from, but for decades now, many of us have followed a similar script after loved ones depart: We pore over old family photo albums, watch grainy home movies, plaster their faces on T-shirts - or even memorialize their Facebook page, preserving their digital quintessence online.
But futurists say that script may be on the verge of a rewrite. If technology succeeds in creating emotionally intelligent digital humans, experts say, it may forever change the way living people cooperate with computers and experience loss. "AndyBot" may become one of the world's first meaningful examples, raising complex philosophical questions about the nature of immortality and the purpose of existence itself.