In February 2013 the second series of Charlie Brooker’s excellent dystopic, technology based series, Black Mirror, kicked off with the story Be Right Back. In it, a young woman called Martha (Hayley Atwell), whose boyfriend, Ash (Domhnall Gleeson) has recently died, finds out about a new technology designed to help people reconnect with deceased loved ones. By allowing a company access to Ash’s whole online presence, they can build a picture of his personality, memories, beliefs etc which enable her to speak to ‘Ash’ online.
This is so convincing for her that, after uploading recordings of his voice, she is able to have phone conversations with this virtual Ash. It eventually progresses to a lifelike Ash robot, uploaded with his ‘personality’ which comes to live with her.
Here, the problems started, as it became clear that ‘Ash’ has no emotions, unless Martha tells him to display them. He won’t argue, disagree or debate anything with her. He is ultimately nothing more than a very clever robot. He is not Ash, no matter how convincing some of the superficial elements were.
And how could he be? He was simply an amalgamation of things Ash had posted on various social media sites, not the whole person. There was no way he could be a replacement for the real Ash, or even that realistic in the long run.
I, and many others, will have thought about this drama when journalist Simon Ricketts posted this on Twitter.
If you go to the Eterni.Me site it asks you,
” What if your children or grand children would know more about you and your life? What if they would be more like you, think more like you?
What if all the important events, adventures and thoughts in your life would be accessible to future generations, who never met the real you?
And what if, more than that, they could really interact with your memories, as if they were talking to you in person?
Eterni.me collects almost everything that you create during your lifetime, and processes this huge amount of information using complex Artificial Intelligence algorithms.
Then it generates a virtual YOU, an avatar that emulates your personality and can interact with, and offer information and advice to your family and friends after you pass away.
It’s like a Skype chat from the past.”
All under the streamline “Simply become immortal”.
It isn’t the only website out there offering this, but it was the one which grabbed my attention. Especially as it is so close to the initial premise of Be Right Back. Ok, we’re not at the stage of phone conversations or life-like robot versions of our departed loved ones, but it the similarities between what Eterni.Me is offering and Martha’s original web chats with ‘Ash’ are uncanny.
I can see the attraction. Grief and loss are two of the hardest emotions to deal with, as anyone who has been through them (including most people reading this) will tell you. Pain, anger, denial, despair, depression are all natural parts of the grieving process. It’s a horrible time which almost everyone will experience at some stage in their life and all those who do will look back on with immense sadness.
You do, however, get to look back on it. At some stage the grieving slows, then ceases and the process of living starts up again. One thing never leaves you, though. The void that person, and all you would have experienced with them, leaves in your life.
When I was 20, my Dad, Michael, died very suddenly. He was only 44 years old. He never met my wife or any of my children (my daughter was born a year, almost to the day, after he died). I never had him around during any of my adult years. I missed his advice and guidance on being a father and a husband (he was fantastic on both counts). I missed out on sharing my joys, pains, celebrations and everything else with him. As did my Mum and sister. I would give anything to have him back.
That is what Eterni.Me is trading on. The millions of us who would give anything to have a certain person back again. The chance to hear from them, their advice, humour, views, almost their voice again. Introduce your children, spouse, grand children to them. A chance to have them back again.
Here’s the thing, though. My Dad died before the internet age, so I couldn’t do this with him even if I wanted to. But I wouldn’t want to. It wouldn’t be my Dad. No amount of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, blog, Reddit or any other online activity can make the person. It’s simply a snapshot, a glimpse into what the person was like. Very often it’s simply a glimpse at the person that you want to present to the world, rather than the person inside.
No amount of uploads would ever give me back my Dad’s sense of humour. It would never give me the little words of wisdom he would give me. I’d never get a moment like that burst of sheer joy when I passed my driving test. I’d never feel his love.
The same goes for all of us. We are more than words, thoughts, reactions, jokes, remarks and the like, we don’t just have a mind. We have a heart. We have a soul. We all have that divine, God given breath of life which makes each of us a unique, remarkable, beautiful, unpredictable being. That can’t be replicated and spat out using “Artificial intelligence algorithms”.
“Then God said,
“Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”
(Genesis 1:26-27 NIV)
We are made in God’s image, not the image of ones and zeros. We are made in the divine image, not an electronic one.
Nothing can get back a person once lost, no matter how much we wish and pray that we could. Death and loss are a valuable, though painful, part of life. We learn from it. We draw closer to others from it. We suffer from it, yes, but from that suffering we can draw strength. Not everyone manages it and, certainly, everyone would rather we didn’t go through it at all, but we can come through it as stronger people.
Death is an integral part of life. Life is, after Jesus, the greatest gift God has given to us. We can’t replace it with websites. If we try, we may fail to appreciate all of its wonders while we still have it.