In 2003, the wife of a 55-year-old Vietnamese carpenter named Le Van died. Heartbroken, he dug up her grave, cast her body in clay and slept next to "her" for five years.
The story is unsettling, but there's also something universal about his struggle to let go. Many grieving people feel an emotional connection to things that represent dead loved ones, such as headstones, urns and shrines, according to grief counselors.
In the future, people may take that phenomenon to stunning new heights: Artificial intelligence experts predict that humans will replace dead relatives with synthetic robot clones, complete with a digital copy of that person's brain.
"It's like when people stuff a pet cat or dog. We don't stuff humans but this is a way of 'stuffing' their information, their personality and mannerisms," said Bruce Duncan, managing director of Terasem Movement, a research foundation that aims to "transfer human consciousness to computers and robots."
The firm has already created thousands of highly detailed "mind clones" to log the memories, values and attitudes of specific people. Using the data, scientists created one of the world's most socially advanced robots, a replica of Terasem Movement founder Martine Rothblatt's wife, called Bina48, which sells for roughly $150,000.
Rothblatt, who is also transgender and the highest paid female CEO in America, spearheaded the project to create a digital replica the human brain. She used her wife, Bina Aspen, as an early prototype, installing the real Bina's "mind file" into a physical robot designed to look like her.
Made of a skin-like rubber, Bina48 was created using more than 100 hours of audio data recorded by the human Bina about her memories and beliefs. Like the real Bina, the robot "loves" flowers, has mocha-colored skin and a self-deprecating sense of humor. She makes facial expressions, greets people and has conversations (including some awkward ones), made possible with facial and voice recognition software, motion tracking, and internet connectivity.
"The definition of 'alive' may even evolve to mean, 'as long as your essential personal information continues to be organized and accessible'"
Bina48 still has some social glitches, but she's a working proof of concept—the firm's almost-charming poster girl for the techno-immortality movement. She's example of how, in the future, the wall between biological and digital worlds may come crashing down, Duncan said. "The definition of 'alive' may even evolve to mean, 'as long as your essential personal information continues to be organized and accessible," he said.
A more advanced version of robots like Bina48 could hit the market within 10 or 20 years for roughly $25,000 to $30,000 for variety of uses, including replicating dead loved ones, Duncan predicted. "It will seem new because the technology will be new. But the desire to keep in contact with someone after he or she passes away isn't new," he said. "Anthropologically, we've been projecting personhood onto inanimate objects for hundreds of years."
"Think of it this way," he added. "When the compass was invented, we were suddenly able to traverse the world in a whole new way. But the compass isn't responsible for giving us wanderlust."
At least 56,000 people have already handed over information to create mindfiles, a web-based storage space for preserving "one's unique and essential characteristics for the future," according to Lifenaut, a branch of the Terasem Movement that gathers human personality data for free. The goal is to capture a person's attitudes, beliefs and memories and create a database that one day will be analogged and uploaded to a robot or holograph, according to the Lifenaut website. Everything down to a person's mannerisms and quirks can be recreated.
Some users simply like the idea of living forever. Others want to document themselves as a part of human history. Some hope to pass on an artistic project or genealogical information to offspring. Fewer will use it to "memorialize" and "communicate with" the dead, Duncan said.
His firm isn't the only company plugging into the idea of AI clones. Last year, Google filed patent papers for a product that could replicate a specific human's personality, including that of "a deceased loved one" or a "celebrity."
The patent describes a cloud-based system in which a digital "personality" can be downloaded like an app. "The robot personality may also be modifiable within a base personality construct to provide states or moods representing transitory conditions of happiness, fear, surprise," the patent papers state. "The robot personality [will be] sharable across a number of robots in varying locations."
The patent also states the robot's mood could shift and its personality could evolve over time. A Google rep declined to comment new developments. But new patent papers were filed in mid-February, indicating the project is moving forward.
Tech giants may be throwing their weight at the concept — but similar projects have failed before. Six years ago, the now-defunct company Intellitar launched a digital clone promising users "virtual eternity," and the ability to communicate with a person's digital self after death. Users uploaded photos, voice samples and personality tests to create an "avatar" brain for $25 a month. But the startup shut down after two years, in part, because it pulled in only 10,000 customers.
If the idea sounds familiar, maybe that's because it has inspired popular science fiction, including an episode of the British sci-fi drama Black Mirror. In the chilling episode, titled "Be Right Back," a woman orders a digital replacement of her dead boyfriend through an online service. Later, she upgrades to a synthetic robot clone of him, and sex, emotional dependency, and creepiness ensues.
In real life, there's an actual demand for robot reincarnation, grief experts say. "People find grief to be a painful, even excruciating experience. If this is a way to ease that pain, it will be attractive to people," said Robert Zucker, a grief counselor and author of The Journey Through Grief and Loss.
But like relying too heavily on prescription pills, it may not be a healthy way to cope. "There's something tremendously problematic about it," said Zucker. "It seems driven by fear, a desire to numb pain and make the world not feel sorrow. We would be deluding ourselves."
"There are many ways of grieving that are strange and extreme"
However he added, "There are many ways of grieving that are strange and extreme. As long as it doesn't inhibit that person from moving on with his or her life in a healthy way—maybe it could work for somebody."
Tech experts admit it will probably take decades before robot reincarnation becomes socially acceptable. "It may take a generation or two for tech like 'mindfile' to evolve into a more mainstream form of memorialization," Duncan suggested.
The concept isn't that far from current ways we use technology to remember the deceased, he claimed. "People think nothing of watching videos of important past events in our lives like weddings and birthdays. It's quite possible that, socially, it'll become more and more acceptable to engage with digital personas of past people in more dynamic and interactive ways," Duncan said.
But scientists may never fully capture the essence of a human being, Zucker contended. "There's more to a person than their intellect and experiences. There's a spiritual aspect."
Ultimately, we should embrace the things that make us human—even pain, said Zucker. "If people believe they can skip over grief, they're losing an opportunity. It teaches us about life and love. And it's part of the human condition."