Artificial Intelligence Is Resurrecting People From The Dead
Last month, Sixth Tone published an article titled Looking for Closure, a Grandson Built a Ghost in the Machine.
It’s about a software engineer Yu Jialin, 29, who used AI to revive his grandfather from the dead — or a digitalized version of him at least. It took him weeks of hard work and long nights. The intimate project was not just an attempt to recreate an artificial version of his late grandfather, it was an attempt to ask him for forgiveness.
Yu felt guilty for the way he treated his grandfather when he was younger. It weighed so heavy on him that he began to see the idea of building a ‘griefbot’ as a possible solution.
Though ultimately successful, Yu admits he struggled for days with the question of whether his grandfather would have even permitted him to do so if he were still alive.
The rise of griefbots
Yu is definitely not the first to attempt it. You might be familiar with Replika, the AI companionship app. They had some bad publicity earlier this year. What you might not know is that their product originally birthed from a grieving experience.
The story goes that when founder Eugenia Kuyda lost her close friend Roman, she kept finding herself reading through old text messages. She decided to take all this data to build a digital version of him that she could interact with, to reminisce about the past and explore entirely new conversations. The results were uncanny.
Another example is of a man who used Project December to create a simulation of his fiancee, who died at the age of 23. I invite you to read the full story here.
This particular project got shut down by OpenAI (it ran on GPT-3) due to ethical concerns. It didn’t stop its maker, Jason Rohrer, from launching a new, repackaged version of Project December (probably running on open source) that focuses completely on ‘simulating the dead’ and lets your resurrect whoever you want for just 10 dollars. Who would have guessed resurrections turned out to be so cheap?
The empty chair experiment
Admittedly, it is a powerful idea. If you had the chance to talk to someone who has passed away one last time, who would it be? And what would you say?
A key method in Gestalt therapy is the Empty Chair Technique, designed to allow you to work through grief, guilt, anger or other internal conflict. You sit facing an empty chair and talk to the person that is not there (anymore). It helps seeing the situation from a different perspective, work through your feelings.
Modern technology is trying to fill the empty chair. It is trying to fill it with something else than the imagination — a simulacrum, an AI artefact built from pieces of the past to interact with in the here and now. The chair has become a portal.
The ultimate culmination of what that looks like has already been captured in a South-Korean documentary Meeting You, in which a grieving mother is reunited with her dead daughter—in VR. A 10-minute clip went viral:
A trigger warning is appropriate. It’s absolutely gut-wrenching television and part of me thinks it shouldn’t be television in the first place, but it is. Despite what you may think (I was surprised too) the experience ended up being overwelmingly positive to the mother and the family. Reportedly, the mother thinks back of the VR experience as a ‘wonderful dream’.
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The right to be forgotten
We’re walking into an ethical minefield, though. Resurrecting a person, whether it is your child or your grandfather, as an avatar or even a chatbot after they have died is not exactly something they can consent to. In the documentary, the director, Jong-woo Kim said the family had given consent by proxy. In the story of the grandfather of Yu, there is not even a proxy.
On top of that, there is the personal data that these systems need to be trained on. ‘Personal data’ in these instances is very personal. Text conversations, letters, videos, audio recordings. All that can be considered very intimate. Should that data remain private? Or is that up to the living to decide?
We did not deem it possible to resurrect the dead, but with ever more convincing digital technology which sole purpose is to mimic that has become a reality.
It’s not just uncharted territory socially and psychologically, but also from a policy standpoint. In the EU, we have the right to be forgotten: a law defined as “the right to silence on past events in life that are no longer occurring.” As an individual it allows you to have information, videos, or photographs ‘deleted’ from the internet, so that they cannot be found by third parties anymore. That law was designed for the living, but maybe we should extend the dead a similar right: the right not to be revived.
Yu, the software engineer who resurrected his late grandfather, confessed that even though his project had proven to be meaningful and cathartic he ended up ultimately deleting it:
“I was afraid of relying on this bot too much. I was afraid that I would not be able to move on if I kept conversing with it. These emotions might have overwhelmed me too much to work and live my life.”
Settling for memories over artificial simulacra.
Jurgen Gravestein is a writer, consultant, and conversation designer. Roughly 4 years ago, he stumbled into the world of chatbots and voice assistants. He was employee no. 1 at Conversation Design Institute and now works for the strategy and delivery branch CDI Services helping companies drive business value with conversational AI.
Reach out if you’d like him as a guest on your panel or podcast.
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