Meet the Digital Immortality App Designed to Memorialize Loved Ones

UPDATED: April 19, 2024
PUBLISHED: April 21, 2024
Spirit ghost of lost loved one exemplifying digital immortality

After YouTube creator Jason Appleton’s grandfather died, he would occasionally hear stories about him from his aunt and uncle. Appleton found himself wishing he had spent more time talking to his grandfather about his life. 

“When I was young, I remember my grandfather. But I didn’t value him,” says Appleton. “When you’re 15 or 14 years old, you’ve just got old heads around— you don’t really understand the value of their stories or their experience. As an older man, I’m so interested in learning more about my grandfather and my grandmother. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be so interesting to chat with him today and learn more about his life at a time when I would really appreciate it?’” 

Appleton decided to make a tool so that his grandchildren would be able to speak to him after he had passed on. So he founded, an artificial intelligence platform modeled to produce realistic representations of the individuals whom the technology is modeled after. Eternalized is just one of many “digital immortality,” or “afterlife technology,” companies that attempt to memorialize loved ones after they have passed on. Most of these companies are not from big technology companies but instead from small startups. 

What is uses machine learning to replicate the personalities of people who have opted into being featured on the service. The current “Eternals,” as the website refers to them, are mostly YouTube creators in the cryptocurrency space, and they are trained on the YouTube transcripts from these personalities. 

When you log into the website, you can choose the Eternal that you want to talk to and have a conversation with it. Currently, when you “awaken” the Eternal, it brings up a digital video of the individual that moves its head and blinks. You can type questions and have them answered by the person who you have selected. 

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When we spoke with Appleton’s Eternal, the answers seemed somewhat scripted. It responded to the questions we asked but didn’t provide much information. Appleton states this is because the Eternals have not yet been trained by anything other than YouTube transcripts. 

“Everything we’ve said in our YouTube videos is then rolled into that model as a conversational model. Now, we can supplement that if we want, but none of us have yet,” says Appleton. “Basically, if you’re talking to me, you’re talking to my YouTube channel right now. So if I told a story about my life, or I told a story about my childhood, it should be in there. But not every detail about me is in the model. It’s ultimately the goal that you can create your basic model and feed it over time.” 

According to Appleton, the app also uses voice to replicate his Eternal. He did not specify if the other Eternals had voices, but they did not when we tried them. At the time we used it, we were not able to get a voice response from his Eternal. Appleton noted that if the developers were in the process of updating the app then the voice responses may not work.

How digital immortality apps affect grief

Therapist, author and speaker, Sally Baker thinks there may be some benefit to digital immortality programs and being able to speak with an AI replica of a loved one. However, it could also make moving on from grief harder. Baker notes the tech is too new for there to be any research on how it impacts us.

“As this is embryonic tech, its impact on grief is unquantifiable,” Baker says. “I can foresee that having an AI chatbot of a deceased loved one or video/holographic face could provide a bittersweet link for a person in mourning. It would help some people make the transition in acceptance of their loss while others might become emotionally mired and find it more difficult to move on.”

Baker notes this type of technology could potentially prolong the grief process. 

“A component of grief is the gradual blurring of memory as the deceased fades in time,” Baker says. “Tech could arrest this process and maintain an impression of the deceased in the present moment making them seem vital and relevant in the present.”

What are the ethical implications of digital immortality

The digital afterlife industry has lots of ethical questions that have yet to be answered. When we consider our technical footprints—the information about us that remains online after we have passed on—we leave a lot of data behind that we may or may not wish for others to see. 

Companies that create chatbots with the imprinted personalities of real people must take this into account. Researchers at Oxford developed an ethical framework for these technologies for this very purpose. 

They recommend that companies developing afterlife technologies take three things into account: 

  1. The consumer is informed about how their data will be used.
  2. Users are not depicted as radically different from the bot they initially signed up for.
  3. Only data that is personally owned by the user should be used. 

These recommendations protect individuals who would prefer that their data not be used for this purpose and would rather allow their digital information to fade away. 

The newness of the technology means there are not yet many laws concerning the technology. At this point, most access to private data after death is determined by the company that holds the data. For example, Facebook allows relatives of someone who has died to memorialize the account and download the content. Social platform X (formerly known as Twitter) works with authorized persons (including verified family members of the deceased) to deactivate or remove the account.

The Aspen Policy Project has a resource hub for individuals who are looking for a roadmap to the digital afterlife. They provide design resources for companies that need to develop their posthumous policies as well as a policy brief. Individuals may have the option to name a “digital executor” (someone to manage all of the digital assets) in their will. 

The creators featured on Eternalized sign a simple agreement, except for one account that represents the blockchain for the Cardano cryptocurrency. 

“For the individuals, it’s just a simple agreement,” says Appleton. “Hey, we’re going to use your likeness … to create a model based on your YouTube channel and you can promote it. And then once they sign up, we create the model and they send us photos.” 

In some cases, however, Eternalized says it’s developing Eternals for individuals who are unlikely, or unable, to consent to have their data used. Think of figures like Donald Trump and Karl Marx. In this case, Appleton says they are only developing models that can answer questions about the figures’ writing or policies. 

“The Trump model, we haven’t even created yet,” says Appleton. “The idea is to take all of the executive orders that that president signed, all of the policies of that president’s time, all of the data related to that president and put them in a language model.”

According to Appleton, these digital immortality models will not attempt to recreate the personality of the individual being eternalized, they will only give information. While there is no current law against replicating a famous person with AI, the American Bar Association website states it could impact the right of publicity. 

Although afterlife technologies currently exist in a gray area in the law as well as in research, AI policy changes so quickly that this could shift at any moment.

Photo by Andrey_Popov/