A California-based company is working on an Alexa-style chatbot that could help people to ‘talk’ to loved ones after they die.
Here After uses artificial intelligence to create realistic responses to questions and commands – similar to Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant smart products. The bot will use voice recordings taken before a person dies to help build a virtual profile. Through this, people can reminisce and talk as if a loved one is still alive.
Interviews are conducted where people are encouraged to talk about significant points in their lives and memorable moments. Responses gathered during the interview process are edited and split into separate sections such as “falling in love” or “Story about a stressful moment”.
Thereafter, friends or family can access the chatbot via an app on their smartphone or smart speaker at.
James Vlahos, co-founder of the US-based firm, said his inspiration for the app was based on hours of recordings of his father speaking about his life story while he was dying of cancer.
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In an article published in Wired magazine, he explained how he had designed the “dadbot” and, following the article’s publication, a number of people approached him to talk if he could create a similar system for them.
“Recording dozens of hours of my dad talking and telling his life story means it is just a giant audio file, and it becomes effectively inaccessible because nobody is sitting down to listen to that,” he told The Times.
By using conversational AI, Vlahos added, the firm is able to compact and simplify recordings to make them seem more natural.
“So, this us using the power of conversational artificial intelligence to be able to just grab a story, a reminiscence, a joke, a song,” he said.
Long-term, Vlahos has high hopes for the app and wants to enable customers to record memories in their own time. Already, “several hundred people” have already signed up to Here After’s Waiting list.
While the app could help connect people with departed loved ones – at least in some capacity – it bears harrowing similarities to the “Be Right Back” episode from season two of Black Mirror.
In the episode, Martha, played by Hatley Atwell, experiments with technology that allows her to communicate with an artificial intelligence imitating her dead boyfriend, Ash.
Social media posts and audio recordings were used in the episode to help create a life-like replica personality, but quickly Martha comes to find his presence has a detrimental impact upon her emotional and psychological well-being. The episode is widely regarded as one of the series’ best episodes, exploring the grief of losing a loved one in a digital era.
Theo Priestley, technology evangelist and CMO at WFS Technologies, believes Here After is a “really uncomfortable concept” which raises moral and ethical questions.
He said: “Technologically, the amount of data required on a deeply personal and interactive level just doesn’t exist and I’d worry about the methods needed to extract it if it did. Psychologically, this could do more harm than good. It’s a natural process to grieve the passing of a close relative or loved one. To prolong that, or remove the grieving process entirely, is just morally wrong.
“The loss of a loved one is a personal, emotional, traumatic and delicate experience. Arbitrarily throwing in a digital representation of the deceased with our immature understanding of the technology required is begging for disaster. The timing is not right just now.”