In an episode of the popular Netflix sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror titled ‘Be Right Back’, a woman grieving the death of her partner discovers that she can talk to an artificial intelligence version of him. As the screenplay explored grief in the age of social media and the rise of technology powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI), it made us wonder if this was possible and whether it would change the way we grieve.
However, with the influx of grief tech in recent years, a pressing question has emerged: how comfortable are we with such innovations?
In 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the world towards the deep end of dealing with unexpected loss, Microsoft was reported to have patented a conversational chatbot modelled after a specific person – to engage in a virtual conversation with deceased people. While Tim O’Brien, Microsoft’s general manager of AI programs, dismissed the speculations, and added that it’s disturbing, murmurs of agreement followed on Twitter.
I'm looking into this - appln date (Apr. 2017) predates the AI ethics reviews we do today (I sit on the panel), and I'm not aware of any plan to build/ship (and yes, it's disturbing)— Tim O'Brien (@_TimOBrien) January 22, 2021
In March 2021, You, Only Virtual, an app that focuses on recreating the dynamics between you and your loved ones to enable authentic conversations after one’s passing, premiered its beta version. Their logo, “Never Have to Say Goodbye,” seems fitting of how technology might change the way we respond to grief.
Here's a look at some other examples of grief tech that sprouted in recent years.
When his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2016, James Vlahos worked with him to create an AI chatbot to keep him around. His father died next year, but the Dadbot, a memory-sharing chatbot lived on in Vlahos’ phone. As the news spread, the idea gained momentum and inspired HereAfter AI, created by Vlahos in 2019, a web app that "preserves meaningful memories about your life and interactively shares them with the people you love,” according to its official website.
Speaking to Reuters recently, Vlahos explained that HereAfter AI gives you a way to record stories and memories of life and share aspects of your personality. You can then give all that as a chatbot to your loved ones so that they can encounter "a virtual you" by engaging with your voice avatar.
So, these personalised chatbots make it possible for you to seek advice from your loved ones even after they have passed, as your questions will be answered based on the information they provided when they were alive.
This is a creation by DeepBrain AI, a South Korean start-up company specialising in AI. The premium service uses AI to recreate family members as AI humans, which allows their loved ones to talk to them after their death. In November 2022, DeepBrain AI was named a CES Innovation Awards Honoree in the Virtual and Augmented Reality category for Re;memory.
The AI human is created while the person is alive using video interviews, lasting around seven hours. The recorded data is then transformed into an AI human using a deep learning process to resemble the person’s appearance, facial expression, voice, and habits. This AI technology combines video and voice synthesis and enables real-time communication with a virtual human.
Although it’s available worldwide, you will have to visit South Korea to create a AI human.
StoryFile was initially launched in 2017 to preserve the stories of Holocaust survivors and other historical figures. It then expanded to the grief tech space. StoryFile makes it possible for people to pre-record their answers to a long list of questions, which will make it possible for their loved ones to hold a conversation with them after they have passed. The official website calls it the ‘gift of sharing a legacy’. For instance, “[I]magine your children making dinner with their great grandmother or you sharing your legacy with future generations.”
Although the three AI-powered grief tech use pre-recorded interviews, innovations such as Re;memory’s AI human mimicking the personality of the deceased person shows how far innovation can reach. It also urges us to think about how comfortable we are with the idea of, say, an eternal virtual presence.
As Rohit Prasad, Alexa’s senior vice-president and head scientist, said at the Re:Mars conference in Las Vegas last year, “While AI can’t eliminate that pain of loss, it can definitely make the memories last.” The question is: at what cost?