Living Forever in a Digital World

A young man kneels before a broad, cherry wood alter. In a small well-crafted nook to his left, lit incense trails smoke into the air. As he bows his head in a moment of reflection, a subtle breeze shifts the particles in the air, creating whirls and eddies in which one could imagine the face of a beloved ancestor. He opens his eyes as he lifts his head, and smiles at the photograph resting there. “Hello Grandma,” he says. “It’s been a busy week.”

“Well,” she says from behind him, rezzing into view from her digital projection box, “tell me all about it.”

The veneration of ancestors is a common practice around the world. From China to India to Mexico and a hundred places in between, we acknowledge the debt owed by the previous generation to the last. But what if that depth of knowledge didn’t pass away when a person did — what if some part of them could live on?

Researchers at the Terasem Movement, a research foundation that aims to transfer human consciousness to computers and robots, are trying to answer that very question. Their goal is to create lifelike robotic replicas of people, with personalities based on hours of interviews and collections of personal correspondence. Meanwhile,, a project out of MIT, is basically creating the hologram of Superman’s Dad from the comics. That’s right — they’re making a 3D digital avatar, designed to look and sound like you, that will be able to interact with friends and family just like you did, and give them any information you had in life. Want to know if you have a family history of breast cancer? Ask your great grandmother. Can’t remember how long to cook that souffle? Dad will know.

There’s something very appealing to the idea of living on after your death. It implies that there is something about you that is worth saving — that your grandchildren or your great-grandchildren will care enough about what you have to say to listen (which may or may not be true). But while the case for why we may want to leave behind a version of ourself is clear, there’s another side to this equation.

What about those who survive us?

There is a scene in the most recent adaptation of Supergirl in which the main character meets, for the first time, a holographic AI designed to look like her mother. The program explains that its purpose is to help Supergirl with any questions that she might have; it tells her that whatever it is she wishes she could ask her mother, she can ask the AI. With tears in her eyes, Supergirl say, “I’d ask for a hug.” The AI cocks its head, an almost regretful look on its face. “I’m not programmed to do that,” it tells her.

“I’m just not ready to be friends.” It’s not an uncommon sentiment after a one-sided breakup — the one who was left needs time, distance, and space in order to heal their hurt. But how does that process translate to dealing with grief? When someone experiences a loss, they often cling to memories and mementos, unable or unwilling to let go. A Vietnamese man took his wife’s remains and encased them in a statue so he could sleep beside her forever; an Alaskan woman who wasn’t ready to say goodbye took her dead husband on a road trip. It isn’t hard to imagine how would they react if they could spend the rest of their lives with virtual versions of their loved ones. Even those more emotionally prepared must question how the process of moving on would function if it was incredibly easy — and legal — to not let go. Is having a shadow of something worse than not having it all?

The question may seem esoteric, but evidence is mounting that society will soon be struggling with it en masse. As the related field of virtual reality gains ground, it is more and more likely that we will be able to interact with realistic, life-like versions of the dead.

It may not quite be immortality, but chances are we’ll chase it all the same. The only thing that remains to be seen is where it will lead.

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written by Wren Handman for

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