Artificial intelligence

‘Grief tech’ avatars aim to eliminate the sting of death

The author is a scientific commentator

Some might lay an extra place setting at the Christmas table or put a token gift under the tree that will never be unwrapped. Others may commemorate the loss of a loved one with a quiet toast or walking a favorite trail.

But the rise of “grief technology” may soon allow those left behind to interact more vividly with the dead. Companies such as HereAfter AI build “legacy avatars” of living people who can be called upon after death to comfort the bereaved. These personalized chatbots are able to answer questions about their lives based on the information they provided while alive.

The trend towards AI-assisted mourning, which goes beyond simply preserving the digital legacy of the deceased, could end up reshaping the way we commemorate our dead.

In some ways, technological applications of this type are as inevitable as death itself. We already converse with avatars such as Apple’s Siri virtual assistant and Amazon’s Alexa. Deep learning language models such as OpenAI’s GPT-3, which produces human-like text from a prompt, can be adapted to evoke the manner of a specific person, by training the model on what that person has already said. Voice cloning can then turn that text into sound that mimics their voice. Combining these technologies can produce a conversational artificial intelligence, or chatbot, designed to speak like a loved one.

The chatbots generated by HereAfter AI are not sophisticated polymaths like Alexa, but rather offer a fairly limited repertoire of spoken responses based on personal biographies.

Charlotte Jee, a reporter for MIT Technology Review who has created avatars of her living relatives, described the experience of interacting with these robots as “undeniably strange”. A question to her virtual “mother” about her favorite jewelry elicited the stilted response: “Sorry, I didn’t understand. You can try asking another way or move on to another topic. Yet in some carefully curated situations, it can feel more engaging than listening to voicemails on repeat.

Another company, StoryFile, is adding video to its digital offering. Its chief executive, Stephen Smith, showcased StoryFile’s products by posting a video avatar of his mother saying goodbye — at her own funeral. Companies charge either an upfront fee or a monthly subscription to access avatars.

Lucy Selman, associate professor of palliative and end-of-life care at the University of Bristol in the UK, and founder of the online Good Grief Festival, describes bereavement technology as “an interesting development”. But, she says, “before it is introduced more widely, much more research is needed into its ethical dimensions and how and when it might be helpful, even harmful, in severe illness and bereavement.”

While the prospect of an ongoing relationship after death may reassure some, Selman says, technology could risk delaying or prolonging grief for others. What is certain, she insists, is that this approach “will not suit everyone, because grief is as unique as our relationships with each other”.

James Vlahos, who founded HereAfter AI in 2019 after creating a bot based on his father from recordings made before his death, said in an email that the company had never created digital replicas against his will. of a person: “All people who create a life story avatars with HereAfter AI must give their active consent. They must also voluntarily participate in the process of sharing their life memories that provide the biographical information of their avatars.

Parents can create avatars of terminally ill children, he explained, but since users are not asked about their circumstances (data collection interviews with participants are usually automated), he said that he didn’t know if any currently fit that profile.

I wonder what my late father would have thought of all this. During his lifetime, he resisted talking about a difficult childhood in India, a reluctance that seemed to him an essential part of his being. Asking his avatar to say the tip of his nose, even if he had consented to provide the information beforehand, would be somewhat reprehensible.

Perhaps a chatbot that can converse convincingly from beyond the grave is the natural — or unnatural — next step for some families. But, says Selman, who lost his own father at the age of 15 and later suffered a stillbirth, “[grief tech] reminds us of the importance of prioritizing conversations and relationships with loved ones before they die.”

This advice – that there’s no better time than the present to appreciate and chat with our loved ones – feels like a gift this holiday season.

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