Since childhood, I have hated funerals. They mark the end of learning, an unfair verdict to a kid with unlimited curiosity about the world. The adults in the room accepted the end as a fact of life, and some even argued that it offers benefits in coloring life with a purpose and opening space for the birth of others. In an interview for the “Mission Daily” podcast yesterday, Stephanie Postles asked me which fact of life bothers me the most, and I replied: “Death. In particular, I wonder whether we could leave a memorable mark on life beyond Earth?”

Traditionally, people are commemorated after death by a tombstone on their grave. Their life is summarized in a few words engraved on a stone. In the rare case of the physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, the tombstone summary also includes his famous equation for entropy. Is that the best we can hope for?

There are two problems with this tradition. First, its information content is static. Second, it carries very limited data about the person it represents.  Alas, maximizing information was not a priority in burial services, as some traditions burned dead bodies. Turning biological entities into ashes destroys their genetic information content. This devastating tradition was extended by NASA to space when the New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto carried a box with ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, Pluto’s discoverer. If extraterrestrials were to recover that box, they would wonder about our barbaric act of removing any trace of DNA from Tombaugh’s body in the ashes. After all, a single hair would have carried more information about Tombaugh than NASA’s box of ash.

So far, we have not done much to preserve essential information about the 117 billion humans who lived on Earth over the past 10 million years. We can attempt to do better for the next 117 billion people. Of course, there are common partial solutions to the challenge, like writing a book or having children that would outlive us. But modern technology offers another way.

Imagine replacing tombstones in graveyards with digital screens. Each screen will be linked to an artificial intelligence (AI) avatar that was trained on all electronic records of the person it represents, including text, voice, and image data. The avatar would be trained while a person is alive and learn how to interact with living people after the person is gone. Instead of staring at a tombstone in a graveyard, one could engage in fresh conversations with AI avatars, who follow the characteristics of the person they emulate.

Creepiliy alluring.

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