Could Artificial Intelligence Let You ‘Talk’ to the Dead?

What if technology could allow you to “talk” to someone who has passed away? Several tech companies are working with artificial intelligence (AI) to help make that a kind of reality through the use of chatbots and avatars that simulate conversation with a loved one.

One such example is the Life Story Avatar created by the company HereAfter AI. By using an app, users create the avatar after answering questions and uploading photos.

When complete, each avatar then lets you ask questions and instantly hear a response to prompts like, “I want to hear a story about your childhood” or “I want to hear the story of you meeting mom.”

The inspiration for the company was an earlier project by former tech journalist James Vlahos. Vlahos spent a year creating an “interactive memoir” he called Dadbot after his father was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer.

With Dadbot, Vlahos could ask text-based questions and receive responses he’d recorded from his father. “You send a message to it, it sends a message back and you have these little conversations about his life,” he explained.

Vlahos says this chatbot didn’t replace his father but was a “vivid way of remembering him and storing memories and making him feel a little more present than he otherwise would be.”

The process of both hearing from — and speaking to — the deceased person is an emotional one, he explained.
“Being able to speak to that person and say, ‘Hey mom, I miss you’ or ‘Hey mom, tell me something funny’ — just to speak to that person and hear their voice coming back is obviously powerful and emotional. It’s not that you are deluded that they are still alive, but they feel ‘less dead’ if that makes sense — because there is some spark.”

Vlahos compares the experience to watching a card trick. “It still works. Knowing that there is something artificial there doesn’t prevent it from having some type of effect on you,” he explained.

Vlahos said the power of the avatars and chatbots is in creating “the opposite of closure.”

“It’s the opposite of having to shut the door on a person, they are just past and gone. They aren’t walking around in their physical form anymore and you can’t hug them anymore, but some spark of their consciousness or their knowledge is still around. Anybody who has lost anyone ever knows how precious that could be.”

Several other companies have explored similar AI-powered ideas including Microsoft, which created a stir when it applied for a patent for a chatbot. The patent application said the company which would make use of social data to create a “theme of a specific person’s personality.”

AI famously also helped a Canadian man “talk” with his girlfriend again and powers a virtual friend app called Replika which Eugenia Kudya created while grieving a best friend. Now, 10 million people have created a virtual companion.

AI technology stirs the imagination of programmers and ethicists alike. Our fascination with the idea may be a testament to the power of our desire to stay in touch with those we love, even after they are gone.

As ​​Vlahos explained to CNET, “One of the fears of death is that the person slips away, that the memories slip away, that it all becomes faded and sepia-toned and vague … This type of legacy AI technology doesn’t ease the sting of death, but what it does do is provide this much more rich, vivid and interactive way to remember.”

Vlahos now is the Director of Conversational AI at Embodied, Inc., and was the cofounder of HereAfter AI.

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