When my wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2013, her biggest fear was not being able to see our kids grow up. There are two parts to this fear, firstly the personal fear of missing out on the experience, having Joel and Anna was easily our greatest life achievement, witnessing their journey to adulthood is one of life’s most rewarding experiences. The second part of that fear was the consequences of her death, and how that would affect them, how would they turn out without their Mom. Losing your Mom at the tender age of 2 and 5 would undoubtedly have consequences, pretty much a new mother’s worst nightmare.
After coming to terms with the fact that her death was an actual possibility, my thoughts turned to possible ways to preserve her values, memories and character so in the worst case scenario, she might still be able to have an influence on them in their growing years. She might not get to experience them growing up, but they could still have her influence through their formative years through video messages, and a small library of her thoughts.
The hard part was going to be getting her to agree. She was fighting cancer, and the possibility of losing that battle was not even a consideration for her, she was an extremely strong woman, this would basically be considering the possibility of defeat.
So I bought a video camera, and secretly started documenting quiet moments with the kids. Watching them back now with the kids, it’s pretty funny how to transparent I was, every time I pick the camera up she glares at me, and says, switch that thing off!
Over a few awkward and gingerly attempts I tried to get her to talk to me on camera. She wasn’t having any of it. Eventually, we had the conversation and she explained that she couldn’t do it. She was in a life and death fight for her survival and her entire focus had to be on defeating it. I agreed and dropped the subject.
Unfortunately, by the time we knew the end was close, she had long lost her ability to speak, or communicate. This was one of the few regrets I was left with after her passing. Should I have pushed harder? What else could I have done to preserve her memory?
It stayed with me, I thought about it often, I thought of writing a children’s book for them, with a storyline that described our love and our journey but I wanted something that would stay with them until adulthood. I kept her cell phone with the idea that they could somehow learn about their Mom through the things she followed, the pics she took, the texts we sent each other? It all felt very spaced out and disconnected.
Part of me was frustrated, convinced that had she been consciously aware that the end was near, she would have left us something. Optimistically I searched her phone, her computer, her emails. I found nothing.
In late 2015 we had to move house, two days after the madness, I was sitting on the floor in the new garage, going through boxes and deciding what was going to come in the house and what was being stored. I noticed a book that I didn’t recognise. A diary. I opened the first page and the first words took my breath right out of my chest…
“My book of just in case…..To my darling husband…”
What followed over the next 15 pages is hard to describe without tears. The bravest, most intimate messages to the kids and I, written in case that she didn’t make it. It was nothing short of talking to her from the afterlife, two years after her death. It was exactly what I had been looking for. It was something, even if it was just a few pages, of HER, talking to the kids, in her words, in the future, from the past.
Since her death I had been thinking of ways to make a hard copy of myself, should the unimaginable happen and they lost me too. This very blog has always been a part of that plan, a record of my thinking, our journey. I sketched up a loose concept and emailed it to my friend Tank who takes ideas and turns them into real websites. The idea was a sort of an online family tree, where generations from now you could travel way back on your family lineage and meet your great great great great grandfather, learn what he stood for, and understand your heritage with an accurate first-hand account. He wasn’t convinced, saying it sounded a lot like Facebook and I kind of agreed. It lacked the hook, who cares what happens in 100 years.
Then I stumbled across this…
What…! No, they didn’t!
Oh yes, they did. When this woman lost her best friend, she was devastated and in an attempt to find closure (she happens to work with Artificial Intelligence Apps) , she fed thousands of his text messages, images and personal data into a chatbot with the ability to learn his style of writing, and personality, to create appropriate responses to real-time questions. The result…. hauntingly real life conversations with her long since dead friend. Creepy ? Little bit! Comforting? According to her , absolutely. It’s helped her cope with his death. And friends say that the chatbot has nailed his sense of humor, often making funny light quips about his tragic death.
This was created after his death using what little they had left of his digital history. Which got her (and me) thinking, what if you built the virtual personality before death, what if you could give the A.I everything it needed to be a real as possible. From beliefs, values, actual voice recordings, facial expressions the neural network learns who you are and they way you react… you essentially are backing yourself up to a hard drive. Sure, when you die, you’re dead… but that doesn’t mean the people left behind need to lose you! I did some more digging… and found this…
It’s exactly what I was thinking about! With a much better grasp on what is, and will be possible, they have got an incredible plan.
Using the latest in artificial intelligence, facial recognition, data analysis, these guys aim to build your immortal digital profile. But word is people have been waiting since 2014 for something to actually happen. I hope it’s not too far off.
So would you back yourself up? We all want to leave a legacy, don’t we? Nobody wants to be forgotten. Is there anybody you would like to have a chat with, that has left this place? Imagine you could simply text or FaceTime with your lost loved ones, hear their voice, listen to their opinions on your daily problems. Imagine my daughter, reaching adolescence and being able to text her Mom about her boy problems, and getting real advice back, in her Mom’s words… kinda like that scene from Man of Steel (Superman), when his dad appears as a digital avatar in the spaceship… God I sound like a nerd.
I know one thing, its a lot easier to build your digital backup before you are given a terminal diagnosis, besides most people don’t get time to ponder their departure like Jess did. I also know how much those few pages she wrote meant to me, and will mean to my kids one day. So I know I’m in. It’s hugely comforting to think my kids could have a conversation with my avatar long after my death, and its answers will be based on my logic and belief systems.
So I’ve signed up.
The full story about Roman Mazurenko’s chatbot and how they built it, read it here