Five years ago, a start-up called Intellitar garnered massive media attention by promising its users "virtual eternity." "We want to give users the gift of immortality," its co-founder and CEO Don Davidson told reporters when the Huntsville, Alabama-based company launched.
Intellitar was selling its "immortality" service for $25 a month to people who wanted to create a digital doppelgänger that would live on even after their death. Customers uploaded a photo of themselves to Intellitar's "Virtual Eternity" website, took a personality test, provided a voice sample and then trained their avatars' "brains"—an artificial-intelligence engine—by feeding it stories, memories and photos. The result, the company said, was an animated avatar that your family, friends, and great-great-grandchildren could talk to, even after you went to the big database in the sky.
Unfortunately, the company itself was not immortal. It shut down in 2012, with only 10,000 customers signed up. If you visit Intellitar's website today, you find the digital equivalent of a boarded-up store front.
"A lot of people had created avatars and built their knowledge base. Some had captured images and pictures and used it the way it was intended to be used," said Intellitar's CEO, Don Davidson, in a recent phone interview. "We sent out a notice letting them know the service would be turned off in 90 days and it basically wound down."
When Intellitar launched Virtual Eternity in 2010, it already had at least one functioning avatar: a digital clone of Davidson whose uncanny valley effect creeped out quite a few journalists who interviewed it.
"Some people thought it was creepy but others thought it was fantastic," said Davidson. "We had a couple of people who were terminally ill who were trying to capture things for themselves — thoughts and images and things they felt were important that they wanted people to remember. There were some very positive experiences around it."
If you're a fan of Black Mirror, the fantastic UK television show set in the near-future that assumes all technology leads to dystopic outcomes, the basic premise of Intellitar probably sounds familiar. In the show's second season, a grieving, pregnant girlfriend uses a similar service to bring her dead boyfriend back; after scanning his email and social media accounts, the company she uses builds a robotic clone with his personality and personal history programmed in. (Spoiler: They do not live happily ever after.)
"It wasn’t about lack of demand. We had a lot of people interested," said Davidson, who is now chief revenue officer of a real estate software company in Virginia. The company's failure instead was a result of a legal battle. "It's a pretty simple story really," said Davidson. "We had a tremendous amount of momentum but then we got into an intellectual property dispute. It was going to be a long, expensive IP lawsuit. We had two options: We could have tried to raise a bunch more money to rebuild the technology we couldn't use anymore, or shut it down."
You can't achieve immortality if you're dependent on a company that might go out of business. Davidson says some customers were angry that Intellitar shut down, and that their immortality was no longer guaranteed. While they could download the data they'd uploaded to a text or Excel file, they couldn't export their avatars, because as part of the settlement, Intellitar agreed to no longer use the technology that powered them.
Other customers were just sad. "I got a lot of messages from people saying, 'I’m sorry. I thought this was a cool idea,'” said Davidson.
Davidson wouldn't discuss the legal dispute in detail, saying the settlement was confidential, but court records show that in 2011, Intellitar sued Cognitive Code, the LA-based company that created the artificial intelligence engine that powered its avatars, for breach of contract. Cognitive Code COO John Albert also said he could not discuss the settlement. "There was litigation and we no longer work with Intellitar," said Albert, whose company now primarily sells SILVIA, a Siri-like virtual assistant that defense contractor Northrop Grumman has licensed for use as an interface in military technology.
Davidson said the company spent "hundreds of thousands" of dollars on the lawsuit, but realized it might take millions more, and that victory wasn't certain. Davidson seems regretful years later about the company's demise. He hadn't seen the Black Mirror episode that portrayed the realization of the company's technology, but said Intellitar had been on a very similar path. The company had just created the ability to scrape information from Facebook, MySpace and Google+, and was discussing pulling in data from Gmail "when things blew up," he said. "It really could have been interesting."
At least one other company has picked up where Intellitar dropped off. The current press darling working on a version of this is an MIT-developed start-up called Eterni.me; it launched last year promising people they could "live on forever as a digital avatar." But it remains in beta; a recent BBC article described the technology as "still in its infancy."