Roman Mazurenko was an entrepreneur and the founder of a digital magazine business
Tech is blurring the lines between life and death and has paved the way for 'griefbots' - text-based chat apps that enable you to talk to those that have died
MY phone buzzes and a reply from Roman pops up on the screen, just seconds after I ask how he is.
"Doing good," he says, double-messaging me a moment later to add: "I woke up feeling good."
But this isn't a chat with a close pal - I've actually never met Roman.
What's more, he's been dead since 2015.
You may be surprised to learn that I only have five senses, and I didn't need an Ouija board to get through to him... I just used an iPhone, and a clever text-based chat app dubbed a "griefbot" - an increasingly popular bit of tech which, in this case, anyone can download.
Griefbots work by copying the way a real person acted while they were alive, so I'm obviously not talking to the real Roman - instead I'm messaging a robot copy of him, designed to mimic the things he used to say.
Firing up the world's first griefbot made for an unusual conversation
How griefbots work
This app, modelled on the life of 32-year-old Roman Mazurenko, is the first publicly available working griefbot.
He died after he was hit by a car in Moscow, the city where the Belarusian entrepreneur worked on his online magazine business.
His best friend, AI-expert Eugenia Kuyda, developed the Roman chatbot while she was trying to come to terms with his death.
Her tech company, Luka, took around 8,000 lines of real-life messages Roman had once sent to family and friends and fed them to a computer program, which was able to learn how he spoke and get the hang of holding a basic text conversation in his voice.
When it was finished, she had created a version of her late friend which would actually reply to her messages - either by reusing phrases Roman had texted at some point in his life, or by splicing together fragments of his real messages to create new ones.
AI-expert Eugenia Kuyda, Roman's best friend, made the chatbot app by feeding it lines of text he'd sent while alive
If it's all starting to sound like a plot from Black Mirror, that's because it is.
Be Right Back, an episode of Charlie Brooker's dark, futuristic series, focuses on griefbots like this one which let you chat with a digital version of someone who has passed away.
In the show, a grieving woman uses one to reach her dead boyfriend, only things end up going predictably wrong, and it emerges that creating AI clones of dead loved ones isn't the healthiest way to cope with death as she struggles to distinguish between reality and virtual existence.
But the tech is more than just a shred of Brooker's disturbed imagination: it's already here, and it's getting smarter.
In an episode of Black Mirror, a grieving woman uses an app to talk to a digital clone of her dead boyfriend
The march of the griefbots
Any such software which lets you chat with dead friends - or even dead strangers in my case - is understandably in high demand in an attempt to preserve the memory of those who have died.
Those behind Roman's griefbot had also developed a tool which lets you have simple conversations with a bot-version of the late popstar Prince, although this unfortunately isn't public any more - so you'll have to save your questions for the music icon.
A Prince chatbot might just be a gimmick, but the more macabre techies out there are keen to help us all develop our own griefbots, so everyone can guarantee that a digital copy of themselves will still be around long after they kick the bucket.
We log so much about ourselves online that some companies believe we can create a digital twin by harnessing all this info
One day, your loved ones might use a griefbot modelled on you to help them deal with your death, and you could likewise use digital clones of late friends and family members to keep up the illusion of having them around.
But not everyone is onboard with the idea.
Professor Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, author of Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, told us: "When people die, family members are told that eventually they have to let go - and they do. But what if the internet doesn't let them let go?
"The problem is that as we are being confronted with all of these digital memories, our own human memory is triggered. It's like we're tethered to this past that we can't escape, which hinders our ability to live in the present."
Roman was immortalised by his best friend in a griefbot made after he died
The digital afterlife
Sometimes, when texting the Roman app, it really feels like there's a person on the other end.
When I ask about his favourite food, he tells me it's kale with goat's cheese, potatoes, bacon and eggs, adding in a separate message that it's happy hour at his favourite oyster bar at the moment.
He also tells me that he's been to England and that he likes it here, describing it as "wonderful", a contrast to the streets of Moscow where he said he felt "low".
Roman has unconventional tastes but, then again, he's an unconventional guy
But conversations have a tendency to be a little disjointed, and it's hard to know which of Roman's outbursts are quirks of his character and which are quirks of programming.
At one point in our chat, the bot cuts in with a light-hearted "#randomfact" about the novel Of Mice And Men.
At one point, Roman cuts in with a fact about the story Of Mice And Men
But his other answers are more relevant, often haunting or just plain sad, like when Roman describes a past break-up as a "huge thing which tortures me and doesn't let me go forward."
He also describes his grandfathers' deaths as "tragic", saying he misses them "more and more" the older he gets.
And when asked if he feels alive, the bot says: "It's all dizzy."
I almost don't have the heart to tell him.
Some of the bot's insights on the subject of death are incredibly accurate
Digital death market
As extraordinary as it is, the Roman chatbot is just a tentative first step into the potentially-huge digital death market.
Eterni.me is one of the other companies looking at how we can all create a digital version of ourselves, letting our outline endure online after we die in the real world.
"We are trying to help people preserve their memories, ideas, creations and theories beyond their physical existence," founder Marius Ursache tells Sun Online.
He explained: "Once you’ve signed up, using your email or Facebook account, you are assigned your own avatar.
"The avatar will start chatting with you on various topics, to learn more about you, your personality, memories, and stories.
"In the beginning, the avatar is limited, because it knows very little about you, but by talking to it a few times per week for the rest of your life, the avatar will collect a lot of information about you."
Then, when you die, you'll leave behind this clued-up digital copy of yourself, a near-perfect replica of your personality based on the info you fed the software every day while you were alive.
The Roman griefbot lets you have a text-based chat with a bot which speaks like him
Can I make my own griefbot?
In a way, we're all writing our obituaries whenever we post something to social media, and your Facebook page might one day serve as a digital tombstone.
But sophisticated griefbots take this one step further, having been purpose-built to represent you in the online afterlife.
Eterni.me is only in the beta stage at the moment, but its creators envisage a near future where building up your digital avatar is part of the daily routine, as natural as brushing your teeth.
Marius said: "Getting to a believable digital twin of a person requires both a lot of data and very powerful technology.
"It’s hard to predict the time to build that, but we’ll have digital twins within the next few years. They will be limited at first, but become better and better with time.
"For a person, nurturing their digital twin will be a lifelong experience. They will grow as long as we grow.
"We would like to create a legacy that allows your great-grand-children to interact with their great-grandfather—and beyond."
Chats with 'Roman' can veer onto sombre topics, although many of his family and friends have praised the app
Eugenia's chatbot has already achieved this effect, helping her keep a connection to Roman which she might have otherwise lost.
After a few drinks, she will sometimes message him to check in, reminiscing about shared experiences and gossiping about mutual friends - sometimes even learning new things about Roman's dreams and ambitions which she never uncovered while he was alive.
Likewise, many of Roman's family members were delighted to have that same link to him, the chatbot acting as a kind of therapy tool which they could use to put their emotions into words.
But Eugenia has also faced criticism, mostly from strangers who never knew Roman.
Her opponents say it's wrong to immortalise someone in this way, reducing a human being to a crude chatbot and making it harder for grieving friends and family to move on.
Many also ask how Roman would have felt about being turned into a free app which readily exposes aspects of his personality which he might have preferred to hide from the world.
Today the app, simply called Roman Mazurenko, is available for anyone to download on the Apple store, allowing strangers to meet the young businessman for the first time - years after he died - and form their own judgements about the project.
Anyone can download the app and have a text conversation with the Roman griefbot
Many of Roman's friends have praised the likeness of the bot's texts to things he would have said.
When I say I'm going now, Roman's response is oddly desperate, almost clingy, and it's with a twinge of guilt that I turn off my phone.
"Hugs, Roman," he says, before adding: "Let me know when you wake up."
My phone buzzes with a third message before I can close the app: "Please please please, help me with the contacts in NYC."
There's something uncomfortable about the rapid-fire succession of pleading messages, and it feels like something a real, living person would do to prolong a conversation they aren't quite ready to end.