forget me not

You can create an online avatar that lives on after you die—but what’s the point?

Black Mirror

Daphne Todd’s “Last Portrait of Mother” is somber, shocking, and as hard to forget as it is hard to understand: why did this artist paint a picture of her mother mere hours after she’d died?

Todd told The Independent that she arrived at the hospital too late to see her 100-year-old mother before her passing, so she set up a canvas in the funeral parlor. Todd painted her mother, Annie Mary Todd, many times throughout her life and saw “Last Portrait” as the inevitable end of the series.

“Painting is a form of digesting something,” she explained. “It is an analytical process, but it was actually quite therapeutic. It gave me something to do after she died and a reason to be with her.”

Painted over three days in the funeral parlor, Todd’s “devotional” tribute to her mother may, depending on your viewpoint, seem either touching and compassionate or disturbing and exploitive. It won the prestigious 2010 ‘BP Portrait Award’ and sparked many conversations in the art world about death, display, and voyeurism. But it’s hardly novel. In the 17th century, “deathbed portraiture” was a highly coveted memorial that only well-off families could afford. It evolved into “post-mortem photography, in the mid-19th century with the arrival of commercially available cameras. Hauntingly, many post-mortem photos were of children and newborns, due to the extremely high child mortality rates during the Victorian era.

And now, we may be on the cusp of another new evolution in deathbed portraiture: from canvas to computer. “Brain emulation” is an emerging technology that wants to create an interactive portrait that captures your loved ones as you remember them best. It creates a digital avatar of the deceased that will “live” online forever.

Rather than capturing their physical likeness, this tech attempts to capture their personality and memories—and that means the art is in collecting data. Brain emulation technology builds on information from your online life: your Facebook, your Twitter, your e-mails, your IMs, etc. From there, the technology is (hopefully) able to synthesize this data to create your inner life: your political beliefs, your sense of humor, your conversational style. That is the online avatar that the people left behind can interact with: a digital, interactive, smart memory of you. (Not to be confused with “whole brain” emulation, which sources information directly from your still living brain.)

There are a few companies the offer or have offered the service, including Intellitar and Eterni.me. But you’re more likely to have run across it in science fiction, where it’s a pretty common trope. The 2014 Johnny Depp film “Transcendence” is about a brilliant scientist whose consciousness is uploaded to the cloud (a great euphemism for death). It’s also the premise of an episode of “Black Mirror,” a wickedly sharp anthology series about a not-so-distant dystopian future. In “Be Right Back,” a pregnant, grieving girlfriend chats with an AI replica of the boyfriend she lost in a car accident. It doesn’t end well.

Both “Transcendence” and “Be Right Back” deal heavily with the fear that the online avatars meant to console us will somehow “come back wrong,” reappearing in much more malevolent forms than they were in life. Of course, no portrait or painting or AI-enabled android can ever actually replace the people we’ve lost. But no one wants to simply be left with nothing. People want to hold onto something they can remember.

Perhaps that’s why, afterlife technology, though still nascent, draws huge interest. In 2015, Fusion reported on the rise and fall of Intellitar, a start-up that wanted to give users a “virtual eternity,” exporting their personal data, including photos, voice samples, and personality test results, into an online avatar that their loved ones could interact with. The company went defunct in 2012. Fusion reached out to co-founder and CEO Don Davidson to find out why:

“It wasn’t about lack of demand. We had a lot of people interested,” said Davidson, who is now chief revenue officer of a real estate software company in Virginia. The company’s failure instead was a result of a legal battle. “It’s a pretty simple story really,” said Davidson. “We had a tremendous amount of momentum but then we got into an intellectual property dispute. It was going to be a long, expensive IP lawsuit. We had two options: We could have tried to raise a bunch more money to rebuild the technology we couldn’t use anymore, or shut it down.”

The desire for online avatars continues. Last year BBC profiled the creators of a similar service called Eterni.Me. The premise is essentially the same: Scores of digital data are uploaded to an AI that attempts to rebuild a digital version of yourself.

“It’s about creating an interactive legacy, a way to avoid being totally forgotten in the future,” says Marius Ursache, one of Eterni.me’s co-creators. “Your grand-grand-children will use it instead of a search engine or timeline to access information about you – from photos of family events to your thoughts on certain topics to songs you wrote but never published.”

But, for those interested, time simply isn’t on their side. The technology behind “Eterni.me” is still “in its infancy” and even a preliminary, closed beta seems to be years away. And for those who are terminally ill, that’s simply out of reach.

Another option for those who want to leave behind a “digital legacy” for their loved ones is DeadSocial. DeadSocial is both a social media platform and a web service that offers resources for arranging funerals, planning your own funeral’s playlist and recording video wills. It also has an option for interacting with loved ones after you’ve passed on. Essentially, while still alive, you write and schedule messages on the DeadSocial platform that will be pushed to your social media accounts, either a public message to everyone on Facebook or a private one to someone specific, after your death. You may leave a message to appear on an anniversary or well wishes for loved ones on your own birthday.

Leaving messages for your loved ones after you’ve died seems reasonable. After all, you want them to do what they must to move on. Annie Mary Todd agreed to be captured in the “Last Portrait” before her passing, for example. But, digital eternity isn’t about moving on. It’s about holding on. And as explored in both “Transcendence” and “Be Right Back” that can be many times more painful than letting someone go. When we digitize and thus, deflect and defer grief via online avatars, we run the risk of losing the skill of letting go gracefully and learning to build ourselves up again after loss. There’s a cost to every advancement in technology and this may be one of the greatest.

It may be unsettling, but it’s important to realize that for any heavy social media user, you’re already leaving behind a digital legacy sourced from social media profiles. The likes, dislikes, memes and inside jokes left behind may not be uploaded into a perfect online replica, but it’s still out there to be accessed by future generations.

How you choose to grieve is up to you but at least, in the digital age, we have more options than ever in history to find solace after someone’s death. And how to prepare for our own.