Somnium Space is developing a way for people to talk to their loved ones even after their death. All it requires is a large amount of personal data.
Almost five years ago, Artur Sychov’s father was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, which would ultimately kill him within a few years. The news of his father’s illness devastated Sychov. “I realized that the time I had with him was limited,” he told me last week. At the time, Sychov’s children were only a few years old, and it pained him to think that they might grow up without a memory of their grandfather.
In those moments, he began to wonder if there was any way his children could have a conversation with their grandfather, even after he was gone.
Sychov is the CEO and founder of Somnium Space, one of many versions of the metaverse that have emerged in recent years. Unlike many of its competitors, Somnium Space is already compatible with virtual reality headsets, allowing for an immersive 3D experience.
The death of Sychov’s father served as the inspiration for an idea he would call the “Live Forever” mode, an upcoming feature in Somnium Space that allows people to store their movements and conversations as data and then duplicate it as a moving avatar. , talks and sounds like you, and can continue to do so long after you’re dead. In Sychov’s dream, people will be able to talk to their dead loved one whenever they want.
“Literally, if I die, and I have this data collected, people or my children can come in, they can come in and they can have a conversation with my avatar, with my movements, with my voice,” he told me. “You will meet the person. And maybe for the first 10 minutes while you’re talking to that person, you wouldn’t know it’s actually AI. That is the goal.”
For Sychov, these are the kinds of potential innovations that make the metaverse a new field of human experience worth investing in. “They think it’s about selling NFTs and brands selling their products, but that’s not what it’s about,” he told me. “It’s much deeper.”
Sychov’s breakthrough moment came when he realized the incredible data-gathering potential of virtual reality, a technology he called “magical” when we spoke. “The amount of data that we could potentially record about you is probably on the magnitude of, I would realistically say, 100 to 300 times more than when you’re on a mobile phone,” he said. Virtual reality technology can collect the way your fingers, mouth, eyes and entire body moves and quickly identify you “with more precision than fingerprints,” Sychov told me.
The available research supports his claims there. An October 2020 study published in Nature, for example, found that after less than five minutes of tracking people’s body movements, virtual reality technology could identify someone with 95% accuracy in a group of people. 500 people. “That’s why virtual reality is so powerful,” he said. “You won’t fool him.”
Somnium Space has also invested in and partnered with Teslasuit, a company unrelated to Elon Musk that is developing a full-body haptic suit for virtual reality. The suit will not only allow its wearers to receive electrical signals comparable to human touch, but will also provide additional data thanks to the inclusion of a medical-grade biometric scanner that collects cardio and stress levels, according to Sychov.
Sychov also claimed that the data will be able to collect how you speak and sound, though he didn’t provide many details about how that would work, except to make a passing mention of how you’re sometimes fooled for a few minutes when talking to chatbots online. “The same thing will happen in virtual reality” eventually, he suggested, but even more convincingly.
With all of that data stored, Somnium Space will work to create an immortal mirror image of users with the same visual movements and manner of speaking, the stuff of an exhausting amount of sci-fi ranging from Dollhouse to Dune to Man of Steel, the plot of which revolved around Henry Cavill and Michael Shannon fighting over a USB stick containing a clever portrayal of Russell Crowe, who, though long dead, sought to mentor his son Cavill.
“We can take this data and apply AI to it and recreate you as an avatar on your plot of land or within your NFT world, and people will be able to come and talk to you,” Sychov told me.
The first step is to start the process of registering and storing the data of those who wish to pay and participate in the “Live Forever” mode. Somnium Space plans to start this year, though it will limit data collection to the movements and sounds users make when they’re on their own parcels of land, known as parcels in metaverse jargon.
Somnium Space expects to release the first set of versions of its user AI, in which people will recreate themselves as avatars with their movements and basic conversation skills, by next year.
But the beauty of the idea, according to Sychov, is that this other version of you can continue to evolve alongside AI technology for years to come, even if all the data was collected years ago. “Let’s say you die or someone dies,” Sychov explained to me. “With the same amount of data that we collect about you, with the progression of AI, we can recreate you better and better” over time.
The prospect of a VR company having access to so much data about its users is troubling, to say the least, something Sychov didn’t shy away from when I asked him about it.
“That’s why Facebook is so scary,” he said when we first spoke. “It’s scary to have Facebook as the main metaverse.”
Unlike Meta, formerly known as Facebook, Somnium Space doesn’t make money by selling people’s data to advertisers. “We are a decentralized world,” Sychov said. “We don’t want to know your name. We don’t care who you are.”
Sychov believes he is creating a more responsible business model that he hopes will allow users to feel comfortable handing over unlimited amounts of data to the company for analysis. The “Live Forever” feature will be turned off by default, and the company says it won’t collect data from anyone unless they choose to pay for it. The company hopes to keep the price as low as possible (Somnium Space charged early adopters around $50 per year), but Sychov predicted that the intensive costs of data storage will always require some payment.
(“If you don’t pay, we’ll never collect a single data point, because we don’t sell your data,” he stressed. “You’re in control.”)
Those who decide to participate will be able to turn the logging feature on and off as they wish and tell the company to delete all data if they ever choose, though Sychov noted that the more data Somnium collects, the more accurate the other version of you will be. it will be in the future.
Although it is a young company, Somnium Space has already dealt with death on its platform. One of its owners died unexpectedly in what Sychov described as a tragic moment for the company. At the family’s request, Somnium Space transferred ownership of their parcels to a friend who built a monument that still sits within the metaverse.
But even with all the ethical training and experience the company can muster, there will be inevitable and justifiable ethical questions about allowing a version of yourself to continue in perpetuity. What if, for example, the children of a deceased Somnium Space user found it painful to know that he is still in their metaverse in some form?
“These things, we will have to work out with our legal team,” Sychov said, “and also with our users.”