The new frontier of AI: connecting grieving loved ones with the deceased

The new frontier of AI: connecting grieving loved ones with the deceased


In 2020, a Korean documentary crew invited a mother who had lost her 7-year-old daughter to an incurable disease on their show. The girl’s death was so sudden – she died a week after being diagnosed in 2016 – that the mother, Jang Ji-Sun, didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. For three years, she obsessed over the loss of her daughter.

The producers of the “Meeting You” documentary created a digitized recreation of the child that the mother could see through a virtual reality headset (TV audiences were also able to see the girl’s image).

In the show, the virtual daughter, Na-yeon, appeared behind a pile of wood and ran towards her mother, calling out “Mom”. The mother burst into tears and said, “Mom missed you so much, Na-yeon.” A video of the show reportedly received 19 million views. Although the experience was painful, the mother told the Korean Times that she would do it again if she could. she finally had the opportunity to say goodbye.

In “Meeting You,” a Korean TV documentary, Jang Ji-Sun virtually adopts a digitized recreation of her 7-year-old daughter who died in 2016. (Video: MBC)

“I was worried about the mother’s reaction” to the digitized daughter, documentary producer Kim Jong-woo told the newspaper. “No matter how much we tried to make the character similar, she can still tell the difference. But she said she was happy to see even the slight reflection of Na-yeon.

People have always longed for contact after death with their loved ones. Efforts to keep in touch with the dead have been around for eons, such as photographing dead children, holding seances, and even keeping a corpse in the house for posterity. But artificial intelligence and virtual reality, along with other technological advances, have taken us a big step forward in bringing the dead back to life.

“It’s something very fundamental for humans, to keep a connection with something they love,” said Sherman Lee, associate professor of psychology at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., and director of the Pandemic Grievance Project.

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An ongoing connection with a loved one — such as listening to old voicemails, watching old videos, and engaging with chatbots that can speak in a loved one’s voice — can bring comfort. But it can also exacerbate grief, especially for those whose loved ones have died by suicide, as people relive the loss anew, research shows.

“If you ask me, is watching videos of your dead spouse every night a useful thing to do, instead of reconnecting with the world and spending that time with friends and family? No, I don’t. don’t think it’s helpful,” Lee said. “But that said, would it be helpful to break up all the videos and lock them in a room? It’s going to make the grieving process worse.

Science is definitely interested in connecting bereaved people to loved ones.

For example, Hossein Rahnama, a professor at Metropolitan University of Toronto and an affiliate researcher at the MIT Media Lab, has built a platform called Augmented Eternity, which allows someone to create a digital persona from photos, text, emails, social media from a deceased person. posts, public statements and blog entries that will be able to interact with loved ones and others.

To make reliable predictions about what the deceased might have said, models need large amounts of data. Rahnama said this would work well for millennials, who post everything they do on the internet, but not so well for older people who aren’t as internet-focused or savvy. Rahnama receives emails almost weekly from terminally ill people asking if there is a way to save their inheritance for their loved ones. He said he now had a beta group of 25 people testing his product. His goal is that consumers can one day create their own eternal digital entities.

In June, Amazon unveiled a new feature it is developing for Alexa, in which the virtual assistant can read stories aloud in the voice of a deceased loved one after hearing a minute of that person’s speech. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) “While AI can’t take away that pain of loss, it can certainly make their memories last,” said Rohit Prasad, vice president. senior and scientific director of Amazon Alexa.

And several AI entrepreneurs, including HereAfter AI’s James Vlahos and Eugenia Kuyda, who co-founded AI startups Luka and Replika, have turned their efforts to virtual representations of people, using data of their digital fingerprint to create an avatar. or chatbot that can interact with family members after they die.

The HereAfter app takes users through an upkeep process before they die, prompting them to reminisce about stories and memories which are then recorded. After they die, family members can ask questions and the app responds with the voice of the deceased using the accumulated care information, almost as if it were initiating a conversation.

Vlahos, managing director of HereAfter, said he was motivated to start the business after building a chatbot – or Dadbot as he calls it – from around a dozen hour-long recordings he has facts about his father after his father was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 2016. .

Vlahos transcribed these conversations and collected his own memories of his father. He then used a software platform called PullString to program the Dadbot. Vlahos spent a year grabbing conversation strings and teaching the bot to interpret what people were saying to it. When he sent a message or asked a question, the Dadbot responded the same way his father would, either with a text message, the audio of a story or song, or even a photo.

He chats with the Dadbot every month or so whenever he wants to hear his voice. He once went to a place where his father’s ashes were scattered, overlooking Memorial Stadium at the University of California’s Berkeley campus, where his father rarely missed a football game, and asked the Dadbot to tell him about it. sing a song from Cal’s mind, which he then did.

Vlahos said the Dadbot didn’t make him miss his dad any less. “But I love that he can feel more present for me, with the aspects of his personality that I love so much less obscured by the passage of time,” he said.

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Kuyda created a chatbot from a dear friend and roommate, Roman Mazurenko, for a similar reason. She and Mazurenko had moved from Moscow to the United States in 2015 and were living together in San Francisco when, on a brief trip home, Mazurenko was killed by a getaway driver. At the time, his company Luka was building virtual assistants based on chatbots. After Mazurenko’s death, Kuyda decided to use the 10,000 text messages she and Mazurenko had exchanged—as well as texts Mazurenko had sent to others—to create a digital version of him.

Their communications were just text messages on a messaging app, but for those who knew Mazurenko, his replies on the app were perfect. They sounded like him because they were largely his answers, but done at another time in another context.

“It was just nice to be able to remember him in a special way and to be able to talk to him like we used to,” she said.

The company made the app, called Roman Mazurenko, available to the public, and people who didn’t even know him started downloading it and texting him. Some have contacted the company to ask it to create bots for their loved ones.

She was 30 at the time and he was the first significant person in her life to die. She struggled with the fact that someone so ubiquitous was no longer there. It was as if he had never existed, she said. “For me to be able to get back to him, to continue to have the communication that we had before, was kind of therapeutic,” she said. Five years later, she’s still texting her chatbot every week or two.

Psychologists say creating a virtual copy of a lost loved one can be therapeutic, especially with unresolved issues, but could it lead to someone wanting to stay in that virtual world of their loved one?

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“By giving someone the opportunity to see their loved one again, is that going to bring them some comfort, or is it going to become like an addiction?” says clinical psychologist Albert “Skip” Rizzo, director of medical virtual reality at the Institute for Creative Technologies and research professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California .

Grief therapists sometimes invite people to have an imaginary conversation with the deceased, or to write a letter or role-play with the therapists. With digital recreations of the dead, especially in virtual reality, the experience would be more immersive.

Why people want to cling to their loved ones is understandable.

One of our main drivers is to bond with others, especially those who provide a secure footing, such as a parent for a child, said Robert Neimeyer, director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition. “These are among our strongest evolutionary imperatives, as beings, and our technologies are recruited to support this goal,” he said.

After the invention of the telephone, he said, Thomas Edison was interested in developing a “spirit telephone” to communicate in some way with the dead. And seeing a photo of a dead son in the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War was just as strange an experience for a parent as it was for that mother in the video of seeing her dead daughter in virtual reality, Neimeyer said.

“What’s surreal one time quickly becomes conventional the next,” he said. “In general, in life, we don’t grow as people by eliminating who we loved, how we loved what we loved. It’s about holding on differently. How can we use this relationship as a resource? I think technology can help with that.

The logistics of death can be overwhelming. New apps may offer help.

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