PRESS: Would you pay to immortalise yourself in a digital forever?
Soul Machines has created eight virtual twins so far and digital Rachel is one of them.
The digital-human is a facsimile of company employee Rachel Love, though she was renamed and used by Air New Zealand as an ambassador last year.
The pair are strikingly similar, even if their eyes are different colours: Love has blue eyes, digital Rachel's are brown.
Soul Machines employee Rachel Love is one of only eight people in the world who have a virtual version of themselves.
Digital Rachel reacts like any human might. Smile, and she smiles back. Clap abruptly in her face and she is startled.
But she is not human. She is software. She has a face, and is programmed to be "emotionally responsive", but she lives within a computer.
Digital Rachel, created by the New Zealand-based artificial intelligence company, represents a latest step in our journey to achieving immortality.
Soul Machines wants to make life after death a reality by allowing us to exchange our blood and tissue for pixels and hardware to create digital clones of ourselves.
It aims to make digital humans a mainstream option within a decade.
A DIGITAL BIRTH
As the pair spent time together, digital Rachel learned Love's mannerisms, personality and politeness, downloading it all into her virtual nervous system – a digital brain built to work like a human brain.
It is a technological revolution Soul Machines' engineers, neuroscientists and psychologists have spent years developing.
When she sees a person, Rachel is programmed to recognise facial expressions and speech and respond appropriately.
The system's intricacy includes a flow of dopamine through Rachel's brain when someone smiles at her, notifying her to smile back. Movement tracking allows her eyes to follow a person when they shift past the screen she lives behind.
She is artificially intelligent so requires no manual control. Through machine learning, she gets smarter with every interaction.
Soul Machines chief business officer Greg Cross says after creating the likeness of a person, they must then create "the personality and the knowledge base that drives the digital human behind it".
"Our virtual nervous system will be what brings it to life in an incredibly accurate version of yourself."
The company has spent years creating freakishly realistic digital avatars that react and respond like humans.
For now, they sell them to companies to hire as digital employees and ambassadors. But the business case for digital humans extends far beyond the corporate world.
Cross says they are already working with a handful of confidential celebrities who want a digital double to preach their philanthropic message and keep their legacy alive forever.
"Imagine being able to build a digital version of that person for the purpose of continuing the story of that philanthropic foundation.
"Or you could take an iconic entrepreneur like Richard Branson and say what would it be like to start building a Branson now, so he can continue to have an influence and his stories and his journeys can continue to be told for generations to come."
Cross says they are already working on a project to bring back to live "a very, very famous person" who lived in an era before photography and video. He is not, however, revealing who the returnee will be.
Soul Machines' latest technological advancement is a motor control system in their Baby X 5.0 infant digital human.
Adult digital humans such as Rachel are little more than a talking head. Baby X 5.0 has limbs it can move, too, to make hand gestures. It has a pumping heart and lungs.
Soul Machines is not the only player in the digital immortality game.
Start-up eterni.me wants to make people "virtually immortal" by amalgamating their online photos, videos and conversations after they die so family and friends can continue to speak to them.
"Think of it like a library that has people instead of books. An invaluable treasure for humanity," eterni.me's website says.
Some 40,000 people have already signed up to one day become virtually immortal.
Cross says having a 'humanised' digital copy of yourself living in the cloud will be mainstream in five to 10 years.
"We see a world in the future where there will be populations, millions, of these digital humans. We believe that will create a pool of what we call digital DNA to recreate just about any face in the world."
In his opinion, everyone should have the option to exist forever in the virtual world. It will empower the general population, he says.
But this use-case for technology raises as many ethical and legal questions as it does eyebrows.
Who will own the information your digital-self holds about you and your life after you die?
Technology law firm Hudson Gavin Martin partner Edwin Lim says that depends on the service contract agreement between the digital human creator and the person they create it for.
Cross says the protection and privacy of the information a digital human holds is paramount.
Unlike most modern social media platforms, when interacting with a digital human, people have the choice to tell them as much or as little information as they want.
"We have become the opt-in society. We agree to give data away without really knowing what we are doing. It should be you deciding how much of that information, and how much of you, you want to share."
What is of more concern, though, is identity theft. Humans aren't hackable, digital humans are.
Cross says that is already a contentious conversation worldwide. But he is optimistic the technology won't fall into the wrong hands.
"I can honestly say I have not met a single person who is not doing this because they are doing something amazing for mankind, for human society."
Lim says the legal realm was grappling to come to terms with legislating digital humans, because they, or any artificially intelligent machine, do not meet the definitions of a legal entity. That in itself is a danger.
"New Zealand law has not adequately caught up with the rapid development of technology, and artificial intelligence in particular. This is because of the lack of or move away from human input, which is a fundamental assumption of most contracts and legislation."
Until the problems of such technology come to fruition and make it to court, it is hard to legislate their responsibilities, he says.
Cross says before digital humans become mainstream ghosts, they will become commonplace in the workforce.
He expects all large companies will soon start hiring digital humans to do mundane tasks in industries where skills are short.
At the moment, they are single-faceted, they are not autonomous and do not have minds of their own.
"The digital humans we are creating, like Rachel, only have one specific task, to deliver a service or be able to sell a product. They are programmed. They are limited."
He says the rate of change happening today is mind blowing and its impact on society is inevitable.
The day when a funeral fund pays for a digital clone to exist forever seems far-fetched. But so did an iPhone, 15 years ago.
"We adapt to change in a way that nothing else does, that is part of who we are."