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.
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.”