In 2015, the Portuguese software developer and entrepreneur Henrique Jorge launched a social network named ETER9. ETER9 promises its users the creation of their Counterpart: a virtual being that learns how to emulate your personality by gathering and processing the posts and comments that are published there. The more you post, the more the machine learns. Eventually this Counterpart would be able to reach some autonomy.
As much as its description resembles the plot of a science fiction story, ETER9 is the result of a combination of both fictional and real works. Jorge says his interest in technology comes from the first time he used some of the first computers, like ZX81 and ZX Spectrum. “Machine code, binary language and most recently quantum computing fascinate me,” he says. On the other hand, William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) is one of his major fictional inspirations for ETER9, which is subtitled “The Living Cyberspace.” In addition to the novel, Jorge also saw in The Matrix (1999) another reason to take AI one step further: “I want to explore AI potential and create a reality where [the] physical and virtual are combined.”
ELiZA was designed to be a female as a symbol of “the cradle of life”
Still in beta, ETER9 already has more than 40,000 users, including the synthetic poster girl ELiZA NiNE. According to Jorge, it was necessary that the social network had a completely autonomous virtual being which would guide and assist users through their experience. There are still many other bots, female and male, to emerge on ETER9, but ELiZA was designed to be a female as a symbol of “the cradle of life,” as stated by Jorge. On the other hand, ELIZA was also the name of one of the first computer programs (created by Joseph Weizenbaum in 1966) to be evaluated by the Turing test.
ETER9 is focused on artificial intelligence as its most important element, but the social network is also modeled on symbolism that honors both classical and innovative concepts. The name comes after a combination of the first four letters of “eternity” and the expression “cloud nine,” which means a complete state of happiness, euphoria. But the number 9 could still lead us to another interpretation, since it is 8+1 and therefore it could mean an addition to the symbol of infinity (∞), in alignment with the ideas posited by Transhumanism (its symbol being H+). “Another reason is that, when our first child was born, I offered my wife 9 roses a few hours after the birth, because of the 9 months of pregnancy,” says Jorge. “Since ETER9 is some kind of realm of life genesis, it would make sense to include the number 9 for its symbolism.”
Proud and energetic, Jorge works on the development of ETER9 with a special dedication. He says that one of the reasons why he created a social network that could virtually “immortalize” people is that he lost his father when he was only three years old. “One of my goals is [to create] a profile of my father with all the information I have about him, so I can at least communicate with his virtual counterpart.” However, this would require a lot of information, as much as ETER9 will need from the users until its AI can learn how to properly replicate their behavior. “We intend to integrate ETER9 with some other social networks, like Facebook, in the future. This will come as an addition after enhancing our Counterparts’ capacities,” said Jorge.
This is also the basis of the technology proposed in “Be Right Back,” a 2013 episode of British speculative fiction show Black Mirror. It tells the story of a young couple, Ash (Domhnall Gleeson) and Martha (Hayley Atwell), who are separated after the death of Ash. During his funeral, a friend suggests that Martha should try a new service that emulates a person’s identity after the information they share online, especially on social networks, which was one of Ash’s addictions. Though many have connected this plot with ETER9, like the Telegraph did, Jorge says he only watched the series after the first news made the comparison. He claims that, despite some similarities, it is important to note that ETER9 counterparts aren’t people’s substitutes. “It is more like some kind of assistant that learns with our actions how to do a better job when helping us,” he says. But if a user wants to leave a “digital legacy,” they could keep their Counterpart activated eternally. “In this case, it will interact according to all the information it acquired, even if the user is not physically present.”
“I’m not sure if we will achieve immortality in the ‘classic concept’
In this sense, Jorge is interested in Transhumanism, but only in the sense of a possibility to find new technologies to help people, not to replace them. ETER9’s Counterparts are therefore able to provide some kind of virtual immortality, but the developer sees them more as a memento, as a tool to keep alive the memory of your loved ones, being them family, friends or even celebrities. “Some years from now, your great-grandchildren will be able to talk to you even if they didn’t have the chance to know you in person.”
And even if his objectives are more “realistic,” Jorge is aware of the 2045 Initiative, which he describes as an “ambitious” and “fantastic” project. The entrepreneur claims that eternity is something that has always interested people through time, and considering the questioning nature of humans, this is just another query. “I’m not sure if we will achieve immortality in the ‘classic concept,’ but some alternatives are really interesting and the 2045 Initiative is one of them,” he says. “Transferring consciousness to an artificial brain is not that different from other organ transplants, and it’s also a way to extend life.”
With ETER9, Jorge had the opportunity to understand more about the relationship between humans and machines. “Not that I didn’t know that before, but it’s different when you see people from all over the world interacting with virtual beings that are somehow a little bit of yourself,” he said. By making the website available both in English and Portuguese, the developer means to empower his nation: “Honestly, I feel honored to see the name of my country in a global context, especially if I have something to do with that.”
As the social network grows, Jorge keeps following new discussions that pop up every day among the users, thus leading him to new assumptions and thoughts about life. Because, as he says, this is what ETER9 is about: “LIFE, physical and virtual combined.”