After his father died, James Vlahos found himself reaching for his phone, aching to speak with his father. But instead of it being a futile gesture, when Vlahos said, “Hey, Dad!” his father responded, “How the hell are you?”
Using off-the-shelf artificial intelligence software and his father’s oral history, Vlahos built a Dadbot — a virtual version of his father that he carries with him on his mobile phone. It’s a glimpse of things to come, of a future in which we’ll all talk to dead people.
“AI is getting just good enough to make rudimentary versions of these type of bots possible,” Vlahos says. “The dream that people are already whispering around Silicon Valley is to build full digital avatars that a user would interact with in a virtual reality environment.”
Long the stuff of science fiction, and more recently Netflix’s “Black Mirror” and General Electric’s “lif-e.af/ter” podcast, the idea of communicating with the cyber version of a dead person has become real. By combining someone’s digital footprint — all their emails, tweets, videos, likes and dislikes, product reviews and so on — with natural language processing and AI algorithms, it’s now possible to extend someone’s life into a virtual eternity.
In 2016, Eugenia Kuyda created the Roman bot, an AI-powered replica of her best friend, Roman Mazurenko, who had been killed in a car accident, The bot has brought solace to Roman’s family and friends. “There was a lot I didn’t know about my child,” Roman’s mother said in an interview. “But now that I can read about what he thought about different subjects, I’m getting to know him more. This gives the illusion that he’s here now.” (Disclosure: Kuyda’s current company, Replika, has a business relationship with my employer, All Turtles.)
Instead of starting with a dead person’s digital footprint, Palo Alto-based startup Eternime “collects your thoughts, stories and memories and stores them forever into an artificial intelligence avatar that looks and talks like you,” according to project manager Dora Halás. In development since 2014, the service is in private beta and may not be ready for several more years.
Eternime’s AI avatar will shadow you during life, “chatting with you on various topics, to learn more about you, your personality, memories and stories,” Halász says. “The more you chat to the avatar, and the more information [it] can access, the smarter it will become, until it will be able to reply to most of the things people would ask you in the future.” The future — as in after you’re dead.
That raises a thorny issue: These eternal chatbots could have the capacity to learn and evolve. Thus, the psychological attributes and behaviors of these digital doppelgangers may change as they interact with future generations.
Still, in an era when texting with chatbots and talking to Siri and Alexa have become mainstream, the idea of interacting with a virtual dead relative or friend seems less unusual. Hossein Rahnama, a visiting scholar at the MIT Media Lab, predicts that communicating with the digital avatars of dead people will be commonplace within two to five years. “We’re already seeing glimpses of this, and the technology is maturing,” says Rahnama, who is leading a project in what he calls Augmented Eternity. “It’s just a question of how it gets rolled out in order to go mainstream.”
But even as chatbots offer consolation, they’re still only a facsimile of the deceased. When Vlahos asked his Dadbot, “Where are you now?” its reply was preprogrammed: “As a bot I suppose I exist somewhere on a computer server in San Francisco.” But when Vlahos asked, “Do you love me?” his Dadbot replied, “Whoops, I missed you there.”