Silicon Valley titans Larry Ellison and Peter Thiel have ploughed hundreds of millions of dollars into their quest for immortality, ignoring the digital afterlife that has already arrived in the deep data footprint that the dead leave behind.

The data we upload to social media, apps and website browsing creates a perennial digital identity that is becoming more personal as apps expand to monitor your sex life, health, and menstrual cycle to build a digital avatar of its progenitor that you can’t take with you when you die.

stairway to heaven yuri arcurs
© iStock/Yuri_Arcurs

Inheritance lawyers can take care of financial assets, but digital inheritance is harder to manage.

The Digital Legacy Association provides guidance on managing digital assets. The professional body campaigns, lobbies and raises awareness on end of life wishes in the digital realm, and conducts a digital death survey to explore changing attitudes towards death and bereavement.

In the 2017 edition, 78 percent of respondents said it was important to be able to view their social media profiles of someone who died that they care about, but only 13 percent had made any plans for their social media accounts after their death.

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A growing selection of startups is emerging to help them cope with their digital deaths. Some provide systems to manage your digital legacy and online asset, such as DigitalRemains, which provides your chosen digital executors with an encrypted code when you die that give them access to your email, website logins and social media accounts.

Other companies have grander ambitions for our lives after death.

DeadSocial provides "social media end of life planning" so you can schedule tweets that are posted from beyond the grave, while GoneNotGone lets you "live on digitally" postmortum by sending birthday messages, anniversary wishes, or reciting nursery rhymes to grandchildren.

Deep learning can add an element of enduring interaction. A chatbot called Replika uses a neural network to create personalised conversations with an "AI friend that is always there for you". Eugenia Kuyda created the initial version of Replika after a close friend of hers died in a car accident. She fed his text messages into a neural network to build chatbot that would talk to her like her old friend.

The underlying code has since been open sourced to give every developer the chance to add their own ideas. Soon you may receive a message in the synthesised voice of a deceased loved one with integrated data analysis that lets you hear their thoughts on the events that outlive them.

Some people already speak to the dead through the digital presence that lives beyond their mortal bodies.

Eternal life through digital persistence and cyberconciousness

Robbie Stamp had this experience with his friend Douglas Adams, the author of the Hitchkiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Stamp's cofounder of The Digital Village, a media company where Stamp had been chief executive.

Years after Adams had died, Stamp was asked to speak through a headset to old recordings of Adams, as his friend Charles Radclyffe recalls.

"I remember Robbie telling me about his experience that day, and how he recalled the moments of 'true connection' in the conversation," says Radclyffe, the CEO of NetKernel and a consultant on digital ethics.

"At times, he felt as if Douglas was even present. At other times, no doubt – the sound engineers missed the mark, and the interaction was clearly contrived.

"Perhaps none of this should come as a surprise, nor did it particularly to Robbie; but what was interesting was how he described the moment the headphones came off. He felt a sense of true loss, and even though it had been many years since he had last grieved for Douglas – those feelings flooded back."

Radclyffe refers to this preservation of an individual's essence as "digital persistence", but the method used by Stamp may soon seem archaic if the likes of Lifenaut can bring their plans to fruition.

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The startup combines personality tests with an analysis of social media profiles to create digital avatars that could one day interact with people long after the archetype has died and live until the end of the universe - unless a power cut gets to them first.

The company was founded by Martine Rothblatt, whose £37 million pay packet at United Therapeutics makes her the top-earning CEO in the bio-pharmaceutical sector. Rothblatt calls the concept cyberconscionsciouess.

"Cyberconsciousness is being aware of yourself as a feeling, caring, living being — with that awareness being based in software rather than a human brain," she told Workforce magazine in 2014.

"I think it’s going to be transformative in terms of how it affects the workplace. I think it will be a huge productivity multiplier. I think it will actually create a great deal of new employment for non-cyberconscious people. And many jobs that do not require the use of hands or legs could be done by cyberconscious people."

If these cyberconscious people would rather keep their awareness inside their own brains, they might prefer the service offered by Nectome, a Y Combinator-backed startup.

Nectome plans to upload human minds to a computer simulation, by pumping embalming chemicals into arteries in the neck that can preserve the brain for the scientists of the future to scan and upload to the cloud. 

Sadly, the procedure is "100 percent fatal", Nectome cofounder Rober McIntry told MIT Technology Review.

The digital graveyard

Professor Luc Steels and Dr Oscar Vilarroya prefer to explore digital mortality through art.

Steels is an AI researcher at Pompeu Fabra University, and Vilarroya a neuroscientist at the nearby Autonomous University of Barcelona. The two teamed up to make AI-infused opera based on the legend of Faust.

In their contemporary interpretation of the German myth, Faust is a digital entrepreneur, Margarita his girlfriend and an app developer, and Mephisto a virtual software agent who lives in the cloud 

In the original story, Mephisto wanted Faust's soul, but his contemporary incarnation only covets his body, which he believes he can digitally enter to gain direct contact with the real world.

Margarita commits suicide, and Mephisto offers Faust the chance to live with her avatar in virtual reality by uploading his mind to the cloud.

The opera makes the body the essential component of intelligence. This embodiment is lacking in current options for digital immortality, a critical limits to the experience.

“Mephisto is a virtual agent who realises that he is only in the cloud,” says Steels at the and& Summit in Leuven, Belgium. "He is only an agent, and he realises that he needs to be incarnated with a human body to be able to feel the full experience.”

Until scientists can build embodied agents with human intelligence, only our data will live beyond us. The only way to achieve digital immortality today is by sharing data with companies that have dubious intentions for a virtual afterlife that they already control.

"There is a form of digital immortality, and it’s happening now," says Steels. "There are now on Facebook 30 million profiles of people who are dead, and there's a prediction that at a certain point there will be more dead people on Facebook than living people. So you better get used to it."