Life, death and the universe with Eternime founder Marius Ursache

Marius Ursache is the man behind Eternime — a platform that lets your memories live forever. Eternime recently relocated from San Francisco to Queensland as part of Hot DesQ, Advance Queensland’s startup attraction program. We caught up with Marius ahead of tech and innovation summit Myriad, to be held at Brisbane’s Powerhouse. Marius talks about first impressions (in job candidates), second life and avoiding the third death.

What inspired Eternime?

I’m not sure when the dream started. Seeds were planted in my mind by watching Blade Runner, The Final Cut or Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, by reading Philip K. Dick’s Ubik or end-of-life rituals in Mircea Eliade’s works, and by experimenting with Alice bot and AIML as a conversational web interface back in 2001.

I remember having a conversation a few years ago about Second Life with someone and wondering what happens to one’s Second Life avatar after they pass away? Does it stay there as a zombie, bumping into other avatars with lifeless eyes, or could you connect it to your Facebook account so it would be able to talk to other avatars? Or something crazier, that would allow you to chat or Skype with avatars of any dead person reconstructed from their digital footprints. Back then I quickly dismissed the idea as being too scifi-ish, or at least too early for the current state of artificial intelligence.

This was also fuelled by a very personal story. My grandmother died four years ago, after fighting Alzheimer’s for the last years of her life. Shortly after she passed away, I realized I only had a few photos left from her, and my own memories about the moments we spent together and the stories she told. I became angry with myself for not spending more time with her, but also frustrated when I realized that my grandmother’s life story (she was almost 90 when she passed away) — full of struggle, joy, love, desperation and faith — left behind only a few photos and memories. Everything else was lost forever.

How will your platform stay ahead of technological changes?

Obviously, we get a lot of questions about the technology we use, feasibility and we are dragged into a lot of debates regarding chatbots, AI, machine learning and others. However, this is not the main challenge for us at this stage. It has a lot more to do with user behavior, their attitude towards their everyday life, the activation energy needed to start something meaningful (think posting a food photo on Facebook versus writing a page in your journal). The “code” we’re trying to crack is deeply psychological at this stage, not technological.

Let’s say I’m interested in working for Eternime — what do I need an interest in? What are you looking for?

More than anything, you need to be really passionate about what you do. It’s this inner urge to build amazing stuff that keeps one going when the going gets tough. It’s been my top criterion for recruiting people over the past 18 years.

Second, you’d better be a competitive person, never settling for anything less than being #1 in your field and fiercely pursuing self-improvement.

Only then comes the specialization — and we’re now looking for data scientists and AI experts (mostly in computational linguistics/NLP). And I don’t mean here people who’re programming their first chatbot using Facebook Messenger or Slack, but people who’ve long been passionate about helping computers find meaning in human communication.

According to urban legend Walt Disney was cryogenically frozen — can the deceased also register for Eternime?

No. Our current version is focusing on the “cryogeny part” — that is collecting and preserving as much of your information as possible. It will take 10–20 years of someone’s data to be able to recreate their memories in an avatar later. Maybe even more.

What sort of ethical dilemmas does your company face — if any?

Because mass-media is always looking for the sensational, we’ve always been associated with death, grieving and uncomfortable things many people would rather not think about.

Yes, one of our end goals is to change the conversation around death, and make use of technology to solve it (from a different perspective than longevity experts). We are doing this by focusing on what’s important in life, in helping people live a more meaningful and truthful life, and in celebrating all their memories.

David Eagleman said “There are three deaths: the first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.” Our goal is to “eliminate” this third death.

In the classic novel Frankenstein a monster is created — any chance of your avatar’s going rogue?

All is possible. But this is the realm of Sci-Fi conversations, we’re still far away from that moment, and we’ll deal with preventing this at the right time.

To find out more about how your startup could relocate to Queensland visit Advance Queensland’s Hot DesQ. Round 2 opens on 31 March, 2017.