'Never say goodbye': thanks to new technology, you can communicate with your loved ones even after their death - ForumDaily
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'Never say goodbye': thanks to new technology, you can communicate with your loved ones even after their death

Digital clones of the people we love could forever change how we deal with loss. Technologies have emerged that allow us to “speak” to our deceased relatives. TechnologyReview.

Photo: IStock

Charlotte Gee's parents don't know that she talked to them last night.

At first, her parents' voices sounded distant and muffled, as if they were huddled around a telephone in a prison cell. But as they chatted, gradually the voices began to sound more like the voices of their parents. They told Charlotte personal stories she had never heard. She learned about the first (and certainly not the last) time her dad got drunk. Her mother told her that she gets into trouble because she is late. They gave her life advice and talked about their childhood, as well as her own. “It was mesmerizing,” Charlotte said.

She asked her father what was the worst thing about him.

“My worst quality is that I am a perfectionist. I hate clutter and untidiness, and that is always a problem, especially when I am married to Jane,” he replied.

Then he laughed, and for a moment Charlotte forgot that she was not really talking to her parents at all, but to their digital copies.

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This mom and dad live on an app on her phone as voice assistants, created by California-based HereAfter AI and based on more than four hours of conversations each of them had with an interviewer about their lives and memories. The company's goal is to allow the living to communicate with the dead. “I wanted to see what it might be like,” Charlotte said.

This kind of technology, which allows you to “talk” to dead people, has been a staple of science fiction for decades. This idea has been promoted for centuries by charlatans and spiritualists. But now it is becoming a reality and becoming more accessible thanks to advances in artificial intelligence and voice technology.

Charlotte's real parents are still alive and well; their virtual versions were only made to help her understand the technology. But their avatars provide a glimpse into a world where you can connect with loved ones — or their simulacra — long after they've passed away.

“From what I've been able to glean from over a dozen conversations with my nearly deceased parents, this will really make it easier to keep the people we love close. People may access digital copies for convenience or to mark special milestones, such as anniversaries, she said. “At the same time, and unsurprisingly, technology and the world it creates are imperfect, and the ethics of creating a virtual version of someone are complex, especially if that person was unable to consent.”

For some, this technology can even be disturbing or creepy. Charlotte was talking to one person who created a virtual version of her mother. He turned on and talked to her at her own funeral.

Some people argue that communicating with digital versions of lost loved ones can prolong your grief or weaken your connection to reality. “When I talked to friends about this article, some of them physically recoiled. There is a common, deeply held belief that we engage with death at our own peril,” said Charlotte.

She understands these concerns. She felt uncomfortable talking to the virtual version of her parents, especially at first. “Even now, it still seems a little illegal to talk to an artificial version of someone, especially when that someone is in your own family,” the girl admitted.

“But I'm only human, and those worries are ultimately washed away by the even more frightening prospect of losing the people I love dead and missing. If technology can help me hang on to them, isn’t it such a bad idea to try?” — Charlotte says about her impressions.

There is something deeply human about wanting to remember the people we love and who have passed away. We encourage our loved ones to write down their memories before it's too late. After they are gone, we hang their pictures on the walls. We visit their graves on their birthdays. We talk to them as if they were there. But the conversation has always been one-sided.

The idea that technology can make a difference has been widely discussed in super dark sci-fi films like Black Mirror. In a 2013 episode, a woman who has lost her partner recreates a digital version of him, first as a chatbot, then as an almost entirely persuasive voice assistant, and finally as a physical robot. Even as she acquires more advanced versions of him, she becomes frustrated and frustrated by the gaps between her memory of her partner and the shaky, flawed reality of the technology used to simulate him.

If technology can help a person keep the people he loves, is that wrong?

“You're not you, are you? It's just a ripple from you. There is no story for you. You're just a representation of what he did without thinking, and that's not enough," says the heroine of the series, before sending the robot to her attic - an embarrassing relic of her boyfriend, which she would rather not think about.

In the real world, technology has evolved even in the last few years to an astounding degree. Rapid advances in AI have led to advances in many areas. Chatbots and voice assistants such as Siri and Alexa have gone from being high-tech innovations to becoming part of the daily lives of millions of people over the past decade. We have become very comfortable talking to our devices about everything from the weather forecast to the meaning of life. Now, large AI language models (LLMs) promise to unlock even more efficient ways for humans to communicate with machines. LLMs have become so persuasive that some have (wrongly) argued that they must be reasonable.

What's more, it's possible to tweak LLM software like OpenAI's GPT-3 or Google's LaMDA to sound more like a specific person by incorporating a lot of things said by that person. As one example of this, journalist Jason Fagon wrote an article for the San Francisco Chronicle last year about a man in his thirties who downloaded old texts and Facebook posts from his late fiancée to create her simulated chatbot using software software known as Project December was built on GPT-3.

In almost every way, it was a success: he sought and found solace in the bot. Since her death, he has been plagued by guilt and sadness, but, as Fagone writes, “he felt that the chatbot had given him permission to move on with his life.” The man even shared snippets of his conversations with the chatbot on Reddit, hoping, he says, to draw attention to the tool and “help depression survivors find their way out.”

At the same time, AI has advanced in its ability to imitate certain physical voices, which is called voice cloning. Also, digital characters - whether they are clones of a real person or completely artificial - have acquired more qualities that make the voice sound "human". To show just how fast the field is evolving, in June, Amazon shared a clip of a little boy listening to an excerpt from The Wizard of Oz read by his recently deceased grandmother. Her voice was artificially recreated using a segment of her performance that was less than a minute long.

As Rohit Prasad, Alexa Senior Vice President and Chief Scientist, promised, “While AI can’t get rid of the pain of loss, it can definitely extend memory.”

“My own experience with the dead began through pure intuition,” says Charlotte.

In late 2019, she saw James Vlahos, co-founder of HereAfter AI, speak at an online conference about “virtual creatures.” His company is one of a handful of startups working in what Charlotte has called "grief technology." They differ in their approach but share the same promise: to enable you to communicate via video chat, text messages, phone or voice assistant with a digital version of someone who is no longer alive.

Intrigued by what he promised, Charlotte eventually convinced Vlachos and his colleagues to let her experiment with their software on her perfectly living parents.

“Initially I thought it would just be a fun project to see what was technologically possible. Then the pandemic added spice to the process. All the news was filled with images of people on ventilators, photographs of rows of coffins and freshly dug graves. I was worried about my parents. I was afraid that they might die, and that due to the strict restrictions on hospital visits in the UK at the time, I would never have the opportunity to say goodbye,” she said.

The first stage was the interview. As it turns out, to create a digital copy of someone with a good chance of looking convincingly authentic, you need data—and a lot of it. HereAfter, whose work begins with subjects while they are still alive, spends hours asking them questions - about everything from their earliest memories to their first date to what they think will happen after they die. “My parents were interviewed by a real, live person, but another sign of how quickly technology is moving is that almost two years later, now, interviews are typically automated and handled by a bot,” she says.

While she and her sister browsed through the parent question pages, they could edit the questions to be more personal or specific, and they could add some of their own: what books they liked, how their mom managed to force her way into the predominantly male, privileged legal sector. Great Britain in the 1970s, which inspired dad to invent the silly games he played with them when they were little.

Whether because of the poor health caused by the pandemic, or because of the desire to spoil their youngest daughter, Charlotte's parents offered no resistance. In December 2020, HereAfter's interviewer, a friendly woman named Meredith, spoke to each of them for several hours. The company then took those answers and began to combine them to create voice assistants.

A couple of months later, a note from Vlachos arrived in Charlotte's mailbox. Her virtual parents were ready.

First Venture

One day, Charlotte's husband mistook her testing for a real phone call. “When he realized it wasn’t true, he rolled his eyes, like I was completely crazy,” the woman says.

Mom and Dad arrived via email. She could communicate with them through the Alexa app on her phone or Amazon Echo device. Charlotte was eager to hear them, but she had to wait a few days because she promised the MIT Technology Review podcast team that she would record her reaction when she spoke to her parents' avatars for the first time. When she finally opened the file while her colleagues watched and listened on Zoom, her hands were shaking. “There was a long, cold, depressing lockdown in London, and I didn’t see my real, living parents for six months,” recalls Charlotte.

“Alexa, open HereAfter,” she said.

“Would you rather talk to Paul or Jane?” the voice asked.

After some thought, she opted for her mother.

“A voice was heard that belonged to her, but strangely hard and cold,” recalls Charlotte.
“Hello, this is Jane G and I'm happy to tell you about my life. How are you?” the voice said.

Charlotte laughed nervously.

“I'm fine, thank you, mom. How are you?” answered the girl.

Long pause.

"Good. “In the end, I’m fine,” Charlotte heard her mother’s voice.
“You sound a little unnatural,” said Charlotte.

She ignored the remark and continued speaking.

“Before we start, here are some tips. Unfortunately, my listening skills are not the best, so you will have to wait until I finish speaking. When it is your turn to speak, please be brief enough. A few words, a simple sentence—something like that,” explained “mom.” After a short introduction, she concluded, “Okay, let's get started. There is something to talk about. My childhood, career and my interests. Which of these sounds better?”

“Parts of the script like this sounded stilted and strange, but as we went on, as my mother recounted memories and spoke in her own words, ‘she’ sounded much more relaxed and natural,” says Charlotte.

However, this conversation and subsequent ones were limited - when Charlotte tried to ask her mom's bot about her favorite jewelry, for example, she got the answer: “Sorry, I didn't understand that. You can try asking in a different way or move on to another topic.”

There were also mistakes that led to absurdity, as Charlotte says. “One day my dad's bot asked me how I was. I replied: “I’m sad today.” He answered joyfully and optimistically, “Okay!”, the girl recalls.

According to her, the overall experience was undoubtedly strange.

“Every time I talked to virtual versions of them, I was amazed that I could talk to my real parents instead. My husband once mistook me testing bots for an actual phone call. When he realized that wasn’t true, he rolled his eyes, snorted and shook his head, as if I had gone completely crazy,” Charlotte said.

Earlier this year, she got a demo of a similar technology from a five-year-old startup called StoryFile that promises to take things to the next level. Its Life service records video responses, not just voice.

You can choose from hundreds of related questions. Then you record the person answering the questions; this can be done on any device with a camera and microphone, including a smartphone, but the better the recording, the better the result. Once the files are uploaded, the company turns them into a digital version of the person you can see and talk to.

It can only answer the questions it was programmed to answer - almost like here.

“StoryFile CEO Stephen Smith demonstrated the technology during a video call where we were joined by his mother. She died earlier this year, but here she was, in touch, sitting in a comfortable chair in her living room. For a while I could only see her through Smith's screen. She was quiet, with thin hair and friendly eyes. She gave life advice. She seemed wise,” recalls Charlotte.

Smith told her that his mother "attended" her own funeral: "At the end she said, 'I think that's it... goodbye!' and everyone burst into tears." He told Charlotte that her digital engagement was well received by family and friends.

And, perhaps most importantly, Smith said he was deeply comforted by the fact that he was able to capture his mother on camera before she passed away.

“The video technology itself looked relatively smooth and professional, although the result still fell vaguely into the uncanny valley, especially in facial expressions. Sometimes, like with my own parents, I had to remind myself that she wasn't really there,” Charlotte said.

Both HereAfter and StoryFile aim to preserve someone's life story, not let you have a whole new conversation with a bot every time. This is one of the main limitations of many current grief technology offerings: they are universal. These lines may come from someone you love but who doesn't know anything about you. Anyone can talk to them and they will respond in the same tone. And the answers to the question asked are the same every time you ask.

“The biggest problem with current technology is the idea that you can create one universal person,” says Justin Harrison, founder of the soon-to-launch service You, Only Virtual. “But the way we perceive people is unique to us.”

You, Only Virtual, and several other startups want to go further, arguing that the retelling of memories does not capture the fundamental essence of the relationship between two people. Harrison wants to create a personalized bot for you and only you.

The first incarnation of the service, scheduled to launch in early 2023, will allow people to create bots by downloading someone's text messages, emails, and voice conversations. Ultimately, Harrison hopes, people will enter data as it comes in. The company is currently building a communications platform that will allow customers to send messages and talk to loved ones while they are still alive. Thus, all data will be easily available for processing by the bot.

This is exactly what Harrison did with his mother, Melody, who has stage four cancer. “I built it by hand using five years of my posts with her. It took 12 hours to export and is thousands of pages long,” he says of his chatbot.

Harrison says his interactions with the bot mean more to him than if they were just memories. Melody's bot uses phrases his mother uses and answers him the way she would, calling him "darling", using the emoji she would use and the same spelling quirks. He won't be able to ask Melody's avatar questions about her life, but that doesn't bother him. The point for him is to catch the way someone communicates. “Just retelling memories has little to do with the essence of the relationship,” he says.

In 2016, entrepreneur Evgenia Kuyda built what is believed to be the first bot of its kind since the death of her friend Roman, using text conversations with him. She later founded a startup called Replika, which creates virtual companions that are not based on real people.

She found it an extremely helpful way to cope with her grief and, according to her, still talks to Roman's bot, especially on his birthday and the anniversary of his death.

But she warns that users should be careful not to think that this technology is recreating or even saving people. “I didn’t want to return his clone, but the memory of him,” she says. The intention was to “create a digital monument where you can interact with this person not to pretend they are alive, but to hear about them, remember who they were, and be inspired again by them.”

Some people find that listening to the voices of their loved ones after they have passed away helps them deal with grief. It's not uncommon for people to listen to voice messages from the dead, says Erin Thompson, a clinical psychologist who specializes in grief. A virtual avatar that you can connect with more, she says, can be a valuable and rewarding way to stay in touch with someone you loved and lost.

But Thompson and others echo Kuida's warning: it's okay to overemphasize technology. The grieving person should remember that these bots can only transfer a small part of someone. They are not intelligent and will not replace healthy, functional human relationships.

People may take as a trigger any reminder of a deceased person: “In the acute phase of grief, you may have a strong sense of unreality, an inability to accept that they are gone.”

“Your parents are not really there. You're talking to them, but they're not really them,” says Erica Stonestreet, professor of philosophy at St. Benedict's College and St. John's University, who studies personality and identity.

Especially in the first weeks and months after the death of a loved one, people struggle to accept the loss. “In the acute phase of grief, you can have a strong sense of unreality, when you are unable to accept that they are no longer there,” says Thompson. There is a risk that such intense grief may intersect with or even cause mental illness, especially if it is constantly fueled and prolonged by reminders of the person who has passed away.

Perhaps today this risk may be small, given the shortcomings of these technologies.

“Although I sometimes succumbed to the illusion, it was clear that my parent bots were not, in fact, real. But the risk that people might fall too deeply in love with a phantom personality will undoubtedly grow as technology improves,” says Charlotte.

Ethics and price

And there are other risks. Any service that allows you to create a digital copy of someone without their participation raises some difficult ethical questions regarding consent and privacy. While some may argue that resolution is less important when someone is no longer alive, the other side should also have a say.

What if that person isn't actually dead? There is little to stop people from using grief technology to create virtual versions of living people without their consent, such as an ex. Companies that sell services based on past posts are aware of this possibility and state that they will delete a person's data if that person requests it. But companies aren't required to do any checks to make sure their technology is limited to people who consented or died. There is no law prohibiting anyone from creating other people's avatars.

Imagine how you would feel if you knew that somewhere there is a virtual version of you, under someone else's control.

If digital copies become mainstream, new processes and norms will inevitably be required to deal with the legacy we leave online. And if we have learned anything from the history of technological development, we will be better off if we fight the possibility of misuse of these cues before, rather than after, they become mainstream.

But will it ever happen? You, Only Virtual uses the slogan "Never say goodbye" but it's really unclear how many people want or are ready for such a world. Grieving for those who have passed away is, for most people, one of the few aspects of life still untouched by modern technology.

At a more mundane level, the cost can be a disadvantage. While some of these services have free versions, they can easily cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars.

The premium unlimited version of HereAfter allows you to record as many conversations with the subject as you need and costs $8,99 per month. It may seem cheaper than StoryFile's $499 one-time payment for access to its premium unlimited package. However, HereAfter's $108/year service can quickly pay for itself if you do some life math. The same goes for You, Only Virtual, which should cost between $9,99 and $19,99 per month at launch.

Building an avatar or chatbot also takes time and effort, not the least of which is building up the energy and motivation to get started. This is true for both the user and the subject, who may be on the verge of death and who may be required to actively participate.

Basically, people don't like to deal with the fact that they're going to die, says Marius Ursache, who launched Eternime in 2014. His idea was to create a kind of Tamagotchi that people could train while they were alive to keep a digital version of themselves. It caused a huge surge of interest from people all over the world, but only a few accepted it. The company closed in 2018 due to the fact that it could not gain enough users.

“People are very afraid of death. They don't want to talk about it or touch it. They’d rather pretend it doesn’t exist,” says Kuida.

Ursache took a low-tech approach to his parents, giving them a notebook and pens for their birthday and asking them to write down their memories and life stories. His mother wrote two pages, but his father said he was too busy. Eventually, he asked if he could record a few conversations with them, but they were never able to do so.

“My father passed away last year and I never made these records and now I feel like an idiot,” he says.

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“Personally, I have mixed feelings about my experiment. I'm glad I have these virtual audio versions of my mom and dad, even if they're imperfect. They allowed me to learn a lot about my parents, and it's nice to think that these bots will be around even when they're gone. I'm already thinking about who else I might want to digitally record - my husband (who will probably roll his eyes again), my sister, maybe even my friends,” says Charlotte.

“On the other hand, like many people, I don't want to think about what will happen when the people I love die. It's uncomfortable, and many reflexively flinch when I mention my painful project. And I'm sad that it took a Zoom interview with my parents from another continent for me to properly appreciate the multi-faceted, complex people that they are. But I was lucky that I had the opportunity to understand this - and I still have the precious opportunity to spend more time with them and learn more about them, face to face, without the use of technology,” she said.

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