A Digital Memorial Comes To Life

A Digital Memorial Comes To Life


The Verge has published a moving meditation on a close friendship torn apart by death – and how the friend left behind has memorialized the other in a very 21st century way.

Eugenia Kuyda and Roman Mazurenko became acquainted in Moscow, where he was a cultural mover and shaker, and she wrote for a lifestyle magazine. As the years passed and they grew closer, they fed off each other’s’ entrepreneurial spirit: Roman founded Stampsy, and Eugenia created an A.I. startup called Luka. Roman was well loved in the arts and culture scene, with a bright future ahead of him – until he was struck and killed by a speeding car as he stepped into Moscow crosswalk.

When she felt other methods of memorialization didn’t suit Roman’s personality, or the scale of the grief felt by his friends, Eugenia sought a unique solution. With their permission, she input the lightly edited text and online conversations between Roman and ten friends and family members into a specially built neural network, and created a chat bot that could respond in Roman’s authentic voice. This unexpectedly filled a particularly modern need:

“[In a Y Combinator application before he died] Mazurenko had identified a genuine disconnection between the way we live today and the way we grieve. Modern life all but ensures that we leave behind vast digital archives — text messages, photos, posts on social media — and we are only beginning to consider what role they should play in mourning. In the moment, we tend to view our text messages as ephemeral. But as Kuyda found after Mazurenko’s death, they can also be powerful tools for coping with loss. Maybe, she thought, this ‘digital estate’ could form the building blocks for a new type of memorial.”

Many of Roman and Eugenia’s friends had never experienced the death of someone close to them. But they soon began to engage with the Roman bot in a format they had often used to communicate with the living Roman. The bot matched Roman’s statements to the content detected in the original query. The resulting conversations are really beautiful:

Reactions were mixed – some of Roman’s friends were disturbed and refused to interact with the bot at all, others found that reading their deceased friend’s turns of phrase anew was quite comforting.
As a “digital monument,” the Roman bot continues to be a presence – indeed, anyone who downloads Luka can talk to him in English or Russian. And he – or it – can also be held up as a case study of how our plugged-in society can find new ways to mourn.