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Siri Means You'll (Almost) Never Have to Die

Some 80 years ago, philanthropist Spencer Penrose amassed a fortune in Western gold, silver, and copper mines. After building a zoo and hospital, he decided to erect a monument to himself on a Colorado ridge. No, his friends warned, that would be egocentric. As a result, the glowing 80-foot spire on Cheyenne Mountain is known as the Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun, making Penrose, whose ashes are buried there, an afterthought.

The good news is that soon, when you die, you won’t have to worry about people forgetting you—because your voice and face will live forever with the Eternity App.

No one has built an Eternity App yet, but I predict that it is coming: an application that will create the illusion of immortality, that will make your voice and thoughts carry on after you are dead, an artificially intelligent version of you. Three technologies make it possible: Voice recognition, artificial intelligence simulation, and social media data sets of your personal nuances. With this app you could call home to check on your family, joke with friends over Twitter, even decide whom to elect President—all after you shuffle off this mortal coil.

An Eternity App could earn some app-makers billions. Here’s what will make it possible:

Voice recognition and simulation. For an app to pretend to be you, it must be able to listen and respond. Speech recognition makes listening possible; it has been around since IBM (IBM) presented a version at the 1964 World’s Fair. The U.S., Swedish, and French military have experimented with voice commands to control aircraft. Commercial giants are interested, too: Google (GOOG) gave away free telephone directory service, called GOOG-411, from 2007 to 2010, when the service was shut down with no explanation. My bet is Google was conducting a massive experiment with millions of requests to perfect speech recognition software, now bundled into Android. Your speech inputs can now drive GPS devices, games, and speech-to-text software.

To talk back, the system would simply sample your human voice tones and compile them into a robotic speaker. Film critic Roger Ebert has already done this. After losing his voice to cancer, Ebert asked Scotland’s CereProc to build a synthetic “Roger Ebert” voice by sampling his old recordings. The result: When Ebert types, the computer speaks the words just as Roger Ebert would. (Here is a short video of Ebert demonstrating the software for his wife.)

We have all the technology in place for a computer to listen to someone and respond just as you would.

“Honey, can you take out the trash?”

“Not now, sweetie, I’m dead.”

AI simulation. True artificial intelligence may eventually arise like those sinister machines in The Terminator, but World War II code-breaker Alan Turing proposed a shortcut: If a machine could simulate intelligence well enough to fool an observer that it is human, then it is in effect intelligent. Turing-level AI simulation has arrived. Apple’s Siri is the most notable example. When Apple released the new iPhone 4S this year, it included an app acquired from the company Siri. Siri in turn was a spinoff of SRI International, which had used four decades of AI research from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) to build software that can answer nearly anything.

There is serious power under Siri’s hood. When you ask “her” a question, she pulls answers from massive data sets, including Bing (MSFT), Google, Yahoo (YHOO), Wolfram Alpha, CitySearch, and the New York Times. (NYT) Some of the information comes from review services such as Yelp and RottenTomatoes—meaning that if you’ve ever posted a review of a restaurant online, you may have answered someone else’s Siri question. Faking intelligence has become so easy by drawing from large data sets that services now give the gimmick away. Beyond Siri, you can visit to converse with an “intelligent” avatar named Evie.

“Ben, do you mind if I start dating now that you’re gone?”

“OK, hon. But he can’t have my leather jacket.”

Social media data sets—so voices can input commands, and AI simulation can output them seamlessly. But to upload “you” into this Eternity App, we’d need an enormous database of everything you like and how you think. Hmm. How about mining your Facebook, LinkedIn (LNKD), and Twitter accounts?

Spend a few years using social media, and you’ll upload thousands of tidbits—each encoding your opinions, politics, wit, charm, clients, reviews, work accomplishments, debates, dumb jokes, frustration, and anger. The essential “data” of you has been captured. And what of your personality and relationships? Sentiment monitoring services, such as AC Nielsen BuzzMetrics, Lithium, and Radian6, already parse the tone and intent of conversations; Klout and Quora track your supposed influence; FriendorFollow and Twiangulate monitor your connections with others; LinkedIn knows your job skills. Facebook uses sophisticated face recognition software to help tag photos of your friends.

Nearly everything that makes up your human world is online, ready for data mining.

“Ben, the 2016 Presidential race is depressing.”

“Sweetie, vote for Palin. Yeah, she passed on 2012, but she was so cute with McCain the first go-around.”

To put it together, services already exist to sign you off social media when you die. and Legacy Locker will wrap up your Facebook and Twitter accounts, and DataInherit will send your online assets to whomever you designate. But why stop just because you died? Your eternal personality is a tap away. If some app-maker connects your social data to Android-type voice input and Siri-style output, your persona will answer any question long after you’re gone. New technology could model your voice and render your face in 3D. Japan already has as much with digital pop star Hatsune Miku, a three-dimensional cartoon projection that sings in sampled voice tones to crowds of adoring fans. Oh, the jokes you’ll share from the grave.

The market potential is huge. Facebook alone has 800 million users; if a fraction want digital “immortality” and were willing to pay a few dollars per month for the perceived security of this app, that’s a multibillion-dollar business.

As with any new technology, there will be social repercussions. Will husbands or children be emotionally devastated when a deceased mother telephones? What about the potential for fraud, if someone captures your persona and commits crimes posing as you? You might cheat, not waiting for death to plug your AI avatar into business meetings while you go golfing. Your digital doppelgänger could take calls from boring colleagues. The biggest risk is your avatar might bump you out of a job or relationship; with the right data set, your Eternity App might be smarter and more charming than you.

No matter. Innovation won’t be stopped. Some guys in a garage are likely working on this now. So don’t fret the plane crash. Bring on the plague. After you die, you can still call home and ask your wife about her new lover. Here’s hoping she won’t delete you.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, a media planning and Internet strategy firm. He is author of the advertising strategy blog

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