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You can Live After Death. Almost.

Ynet: Death on the Internet

You Can Live After Death. Almost.
Your memory, your saliva sample, even your Facebook statuses – will they soon be enough to create a virtual you that will continue living after you die? Three services – and one widower – come close, but don't attain, this exact service
With Jonathan Silber 
Published: August 5th, 2011, 21:04

Previous articles in the series: 

1. The user died, but the Facebook profile is updated
A disquieting video was posted to YouTube in May this year, describing a new service: if your loved one dies and you miss their Facebook updates, you can install an application that analyzes all the statuses they managed to write before they died – and continue to update their profile accordingly. The video promises that you can still send messages to the profile and receive answers, which will be similar to what your loved one would have said, if they hadn't died.
That's not all. The service, called 'Envoy', will at a later stage know how to interface with streaming services, so you will be able to watch movies together with your loved one. You'll be watching the movie, and every so often comments will appear on screen, as though from your dead beloved. And so on, and so on, here:

If you thought this service was too disturbing to be real, you'll be happy to know its not. Behind this video (and the Twitter profile opened for it) is Max Batt, a San Francisco artist and designer. In an interview with Sean Yeaton of Motherboard magazine, he said the project stemmed from Facebook's policy regarding the deceased.  According to him, the possibility of turning a live profile into a 'memorial page' erects a wall between the living and the dead:
"What's interesting is that as people, we tend to place people in categories (…), we have a different place for the living and the dead, but in Facebook the living and the dead share the same space. I decided to persuade Facebook I was dead, I prepared an obituary, and then I entered my profile and said, 'How do I look as a dead guy?' That was an attempt to force people to deal with the issue."
The next stage in the conceptual experiment was to establish a phony company for bringing dead profiles back to life. Batt did extensive research in preparation for the video you saw, and among other things spoke to some programmers who work at Facebook. He was surprised to learn that most of the things presented in the video are already available today – apart from one thing: we don't have the technology to reconstruct slang.

2. You yourself, in a new receptacle
And yet the project isn't completely phony. Intellitar, established in 2008, is developing a platform that is trying to reproduce you into a chat window. The surfer creates an avatar (with or without charge, depending on the package) and trains it to reflect his personality, voice, look, knowledge and outlook. More than just thoughts about death are behind this experiment. It also has business uses: "These Intellitar's can improve and expand the online experience for businesses and individual users in a more realistic and life-like manner", they write, and they are probably talking about customer service without life customer representatives.

You are invited for a personal chat with Don, the company founder. We tried to talk to him, and discovered that he is capable of answering simple and direct questions, such as what is the company's address. It isn't yet a real conversation and the answers are frustrating. Actually, this might be the perfect platform for customer service.

And this brings us to a completely different service: Martine Rothblatt, a 57-year-old lawyer from Vermont, is a person who feels the chains of the physical body more than most. Martine was born male and underwent a sex-change operation in 1994; a few years later her daughter was diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, pulmonary hypertension. In 2004 she founded the Terasem movement, intended to discover if it's possible to continue to keep our awareness alive in a new receptacle after we die, "perhaps cellular, perhaps holographic, perhaps robotic", states their manifest.

The movement's Lifenaut project offers to preserve anyone's awareness, provided they are over 13, at no cost (donations welcome). Biographic pictures, short videos, timelines, map tags and other data uploaded to the project by the user are summarized in a Mind File – "A web-based storage space for organizing and preserving critical information (digital reflections) about one’s unique and essential characteristics". The file can be shared with other members of the project, and you can already browse through awareness files of various users.

There is of course a chance that this data won't help recreate us. In that case the movement also offers to create a 'Bio File' – a biological file. This service is also free. The participants are mailed a bottle of mouthwash and a collection tube. They are asked to gargle with the mouthwash and spit into the collection tube. The live cells will be collected from the sample and preserved in liquid nitrogen temperature of minus 190 degrees Celsius. Possibly, by the time we die, there will already be someone who can recreate us from this saliva sample.

3. Jon Neverdie and the Island Girl
British-born John Jacobs never became a famous actor – his Hollywood career was brief and negligible – but in the world of gaming he won fame and fortune. In 2008 he entered the Guinness Book of Records for selling a virtual item – an asteroid from the online strategy game 'Entropia Universe' – for $635,000. His virtual character, Neverdie, is possibly the best known character in the history of online strategy games.

In February 2005, Tina Leiu - Jacob's fiance, the mother of his son and his main virtual adventure partner – passed away. Mindark, who developed the game Entropia Universe, erected a 'virtual monument' for her there. For a certain period Jacobs allowed his son to connect to the game using his mother's profile, but Mindark asked that he allow Tina's avatar to retire. Unwillingly, yet with no other choice, Jacobs removed the 'Island Girl' character from the game in 2007.

Leiu, like her husband, was a mini-celebrity in the real world – she was a model and a singer – and a real celebrity in her virtual world. Her character, Island Girl, was very well-known in the Entropia universe. She also stars in a song Jacobs wrote for her, My Girl is a Gamer Chick:

At the end of last year Jacobs decided to bring Tina back to life in the place where she lived. Jacobs created a new virtual world, Next Island, in which one of the main places is the exotic resort 'Tiki Beach', where the 'Island Girl' spa is dedicated to Tina and named after her avatar. Tina Leiu lives there – sort of: "we created an avatar that looks like her. She automatically brings back to life anyone who dies on the island during the game", said Jacobs in an interview with Vered (Rose): 

How did you come up with the idea to bring Island Girl’s avatar back?
"Since I was banned from Logging in her Avatar into Entropia, because other players felt as if they were seeing a Ghost, I was feeling unsatisfiedwhen I was developing the Virtual World Next Island, which was a polynesian inspired tropical paradise, it was just a perfect opportunity to pay tribute to Tina to keep her spirit aliveTina had many healers in her Samoan family and had she lived she would have loved to open a Spa in SamoaDuring her last year of life she had worked on a website, but it never came to fruition, so I really felt as if there was something I still needed to do".

How does your wife feel about you “resurrecting” your former fiancee back from the dead by bringing Tina’s avatar back to life?
"As time has gone on, Cheri, my wife, feels very secure in our relationship and is not in any way concerned that I have not let go of the past. As our son, Taliesin, grows up and accomplishes things, Cheri finds herself talking to Tina sometimes and imagining the joy Tina would feel seeing TaliesinShe also accepts that I'm a little whacky".

Do you see life after death as avatars as something humanity should be hoping for as new means of coping with loss and grief?
"Not necessarily as a way to cope with loss and grief. I think that if someone who dies has an avatar in a virtual world, the family members are going to feel an attachment to the avatar, particularly if the person was attached to their avatar. In the same way that one might treasure a loved one's diaries or want to keep a Facebook page, I think an avatar may be something the family feel connected with if they were prior to the passing. If not, then the avatar wouldn't mean much to a family member.

"What I do think is that humanity might want to consider is that avatars may be a vehicle for us to transcend the Biological Body, according to Ray Kurzweil, science is really moving in this direction, and I just think that it's super fun and excitingTo me all things in this world are part of nature, atoms, cells, pixels, etc.. so one thing is not better than another in my mind. If a prosthetic leg enables a man to walk, that's super. If an electronic earpiece enables you to hear, wear it! If a digital body enables your mind to survive the death of your body, that's brilliant. And since so many people already now spend so much time in virtual worlds its obvious we as humanity would embrace it very quickly, just like we have so quickly embraced cyberspace and the Internet.

Do you see bringing Tina’s avatar back as a way of dealing with your loss, or as a way of running away from the pain of losing her?

"Tina was an artist. She wanted her music, her words, her image, to carry on, she strove for that. I think many of us strive for immortality in some way or another, through our art or our children or our contributions to our communities or the world. Tina died young without having become a big star, that she perhaps could have been. I feel mostly as if I am honoring her spirit. I deal with my loss by clinging to the belief that the human spirit is immortal and not fearing death. I deal with the pain by embracing life and loving and expanding my family, in no way do I see remembering Tina as the same as not letting go.

Do you envision a futuristic virtual world populated by “ghosts” – avatars of people who have passed away, and among them avatars of living people?

Well, perhaps we will see more of this, but they don't have to be treated as ghosts, they can be treated as characters. I don't necessarily think that it is going to catch on, that people will start making avatars of their lost loved ones. I think people will start making avatars for themselves so they have a place to retreat to when their biological bodies are done... Then I can see a world where some avatars belong to people whose bodies are dead and some belong to people who are living. It may sound creepy to some, but I would pick that option before I would pick death"

(These are excerpts from the full interview I held with Jon NEVERDIE Jacobs. The entire interview is available as a blog post here

Thank you Rachel (Berman) Madar for translating these articles

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