In 2016, James Vlahos discovered that his father was dying of terminal lung cancer.
Painfully aware that their time together was coming to an end, Vlahos rushed to gather memories while he still could and chronicled his father’s life story. everything from childhood memories to his favorite sayings, songs and jokes.
Once transcribed, these recordings filled 200 single-spaced pages.
“It was a great but sluggish resource and I craved something interactive. So I spent almost a year programming a chatbot replica of my father: the ‘Dadbot,'” Vlahos said.
This “Dadbot” was able to revive his father’s stories through text messages, audio, images and video, creating an interactive experience that mimics an individual’s unique nuances; from Vlahos’ father.
Although this artificial version could never replace Vlahos’ real father, it did give him some comfort – and a way to remember him internally in the form of an AI afterlife.
It also inspired Vlahos to found HereAfter AI, a US-based company that allows people to upload their memories, which are then turned into a “life story avatar” for friends and family to communicate with.
Unlike a dusty photo album or a dormant Facebook profile, it’s a way to archive a part of ourselves or those we love that can actually come back to life.
Loss is one of the most difficult human experiences, and dealing with it has only gotten more complex in the digital age of preservation; Fragments of people crystallized forever in Whatsapp chats, Instagram pics, final tweets, and Facebook’s Reminders feature.
For some, it’s comforting to be able to revisit the online archives of those who lost them.
In 2021, a writer named Sherri Turner went viral after tweeting how she saw her mother’s house on Google Maps Street View, rewinding the time to 2009: “There’s a light on in her bedroom. It’s still her house, she’s still alive”.
Others have tried more advanced technologies to resuscitate the deceased, such as freelance writer Joshua Barbeau — as documented by a 2021 document Article from the San Francisco Chronicle – trained an AI chatbot on a website called Project December to impersonate his dead fiancée Jessica.
But you can’t do much with a person’s digital leftovers, their static profiles are a portal to nostalgia, but ultimately empty and flat; an abandoned home frozen in time.
“We share a lot about ourselves on social media, but it’s often these very specific snippets, it’s not the same process you would sit down with your own personal biographer to really go back into your life and share what you do.” made you the person you are,” Vlahos told Euronews Next.
Instead of using the digital footprint that people leave – and all that ethical constraints that increases – HereAfter AI’s model relies solely on user consent, who must sign up to be interviewed and choose who to share their “life story avatar” with.
“For our particular application, we really want it to be accurate and truthful. We can’t make the AI invent things that don’t match the original person, as it could be a horrible and deceptive experience for relatives later. ‘ said Vlahos.
Response to the app has been positive so far as users have been very moved to hear the voices of their loved ones again and some even discovered stories from their parents they had never heard before.
“Their ability to bring families closer together or reveal information that doesn’t surface in everyday conversation can be very meaningful and satisfying to people.”
The future of “mourning technology”
Preserving memories and passing on heirlooms is an innate human desire that is evident in everything from ancient artifacts to architecture. So it’s not surprising that technology companies are looking for new ways to advance and improve this process.
Last year, an 87-year-old woman attended her own funeral in the UK thanks to a startup called StoryFile, which – similar to HereAfter AI – records footage and audio before a person’s death and then makes it interactive through the power of conversational AI and a holographic avatar.
In particular, the explosion of ChatGPTa powerful chatbot from OpenAI, has accelerated the development of other “mourning technologies,” including their integration into the Metaverse’s “Live Forever” mode, a project by Somnium Space company that hopes to create a digital “you” life can be immortal within the metaverse (a concept yet to be fully defined).
In its current form, HereAfter AI’s technology is closely based around retrieving things that people have recorded, but in the future it hopes to use a large language model like ChatGPT to improve its conversational skills – with the caveat that they can access the information limited remains given.
“It wouldn’t be able to speak so freely about so many things, but it would also be limited in its knowledge so that it wouldn’t randomly source information to who knows who on the internet.”
Nor is this technology limited to grief and loss. It could possibly be used in the present tense to just document personal thoughts or convey difficult conversations and secrets.
“It can be of value if people are still alive, they don’t have to be dead for your avatar to have a purpose,” Vlahos said.
Is this a healthy coping mechanism for us?
While these AI avatars can certainly be beneficial to the grieving process and offer a soothing balm in turbulent times, they also risk locking us into the past and preventing us from moving forward and growing.
“There is evidence from several studies that closeness is sought [behaviours aimed at restoring a closeness with the person who died] is actually associated with poorer mental health outcomes,” Dr Kirsten Smith, a clinical research fellow at the University of Oxford, told Euronews Next.
“Closeness-seeking behaviors can prevent someone from forging a new identity without the deceased or prevent them from forming new meaningful relationships. It could also be a way to avoid the reality that the person has died — a key factor in adjusting to the loss,” she said.
As with anything in life, moderation is key and keeping mementos to look back on, be they physical objects or digital avatars, is not in and of itself a harmful thing – it is the frequency and intensity of our relationship with them, which can potentially cause problems.
“We all want to feel close after the death of our loved one, and if this technology can [show] Proof that it doesn’t hurt in carefully controlled empirical studies, then it could prove to be an exciting way to commemorate and remember the people we love.”
Vlahos also wonders if the fears surrounding this type of technology preventing people from moving on are entirely justified.
“I don’t think moving on should mean you forget someone or let your memories of that person fade and become very dull. So if there’s a means of having much richer, more present, high-fidelity memories of someone, I think that’s a good thing,” he said.
Wherever this technology takes us, dead or alive, it is perhaps most importantly a reminder to make the most of the fragile and ephemeral present with loved ones – before we turn to dust and pixels.