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The living dead: the rise of AI griefbots in China


Welcome to an era where the recently departed speak through algorithms. Journey with us through the astonishing yet ethically challenging landscape of AI 'resurrections' transforming grief, memory, and mortality in China and beyond.

Business Insider recently reported that Chinese software engineers are leveraging AI technology to create digital entities of deceased loved ones. The so-called 'griefbots' are built using old photographs, archived recordings, and stored messages to allow grieving loved ones to interact with a digital semblance of the person they have lost.

Could this be the watershed moment that reshapes our relationship with remembrance and mortality?

The combination of AI and bereavement arguably leads us toward a form of digital spiritualism. Many will rightfully question the ethics of tech companies targeting grieving people at their most vulnerable with a range of services to be deeply unethical. But this story goes much deeper than a sensationalist headline about China training chat programs to imitate the dead.

Digital ghosts: AI's role in remembering the departed

Recent news about chat programs modeled on the memories and personalities of departed loved ones is indeed intriguing but not exactly new. The fusion of technology and memory conservation has a history, explored and implemented in many ways in the West.

Hollywood famously led this trend by using tech to keep movie stars alive in our minds. Carrie Fisher, for instance, graced our screens as Princess Leia after her passing, thanks to a digital recreation. Likewise, the late Anthony Bourdain's voice was synthesized, letting him narrate his documentary posthumously. An even more engaging application of this tech was visible at Ed Asner's memorial, where attendees could talk with an AI version of the late actor via StoryFile.

Both tech titans and startups are pursuing this approach, employing AI to breathe new life into the past. For example, Amazon is exploring how its Echo devices might enable users to enjoy a book narrated by a deceased loved one, adding a touch of sentimentality to an everyday task. Inspired by co-founder Heather Maio-Smith, StoryFile allows users to interact with virtual versions of personalities, such as Star Trek's William Shatner.

Elsewhere, MyHeritage, a genealogy platform, provides a service that brings old family photos to life, offering a dynamic view of relatives no longer with us. The race to be the best app that brings your relatives back to life is already well underway. Collectively, these initiatives are all part of an evolving field of memory-preservation programs offering virtual eternal life.

Normalizing digital reincarnations: the societal impact of AI griefbots

Creating such programs has become increasingly feasible as technological advancements continue to accelerate. The griefbot, in essence, is a digital manifestation of a bereavement process long practiced in psychology, where individuals are encouraged to visualize and converse with their departed loved ones.

However, this concept has raised concerns about psychological implications, ethical boundaries, and control over our posthumous narrative.

These digital reincarnations are not only about remembering; they also extend into the realm of interaction, which can be comforting for some, but also ethically complex.

The big question many need to be asking is, what happens to our data after our passing? As individuals, would we consent to be digitally recreated for our loved ones to interact with after our death, knowing we have no control over the bot's responses or interactions? This represents a significant ethical gray area in the deployment of AI, necessitating careful consideration and potential regulation to ensure respectful and responsible usage. Despite these philosophical and ethical questions, the development of generative AI, which can reconstruct entire personalities from a limited data set, continues unabated.

The limitations of AI in replicating human connections

While AI has advanced remarkably, it cannot replicate the profound human connection we desire with our departed loved ones. For example, we cannot learn more from their unique life experiences, inquire about the unique perspectives they never got to share, or gain insight from their narratives to help us navigate our own life. The reality is that an AI cannot genuinely reproduce these intimate exchanges.

Even if it simulates my father's image and voice, engaging with an AI entity merely feels akin to conversing with an imaginary friend. Beyond the technology's environmental and resource implications, it fails to provide solace in genuine human connection. To genuinely grapple with life's challenges and remain grounded in reality, we must turn to our inner resilience and the lived experiences of those around us.

Predictably, this technology has gained considerable momentum, with businesses offering grieving families the opportunity to interact with AI versions of their deceased loved ones. These instances of AI 'resurrections' are becoming more commonplace. But they also highlight AI's profound influence on our societal norms, grieving processes, and conception of life and death.

Stepping into the Black Mirror

The allure of digital immortality is steeped in a broader cultural and philosophical narrative. Many futurists and technologists dream of overcoming biological limits, often unwittingly stepping into realms reminiscent of a Black Mirror episode. Another area that Big Tech is exploring is the idea of transhumanism or mind uploading for a semblance of immortality.

Though such notions can be unsettling, they are being embraced gradually by families who digitize memories of their loved ones for post-life interaction. Today's eerie and unnerving concepts could become tomorrow's norms, further dissolving the boundaries between life and death and between memory and reality.

The intertwining of memory, identity, and AI is becoming not just an option but an unfolding reality. While the prospect of digital immortality and posthumous interaction may seem dystopian to some, these technologies are increasingly being integrated into our grieving process. What lies ahead may be a radical shift in how we perceive mortality and memory, challenging us to reimagine the boundaries of life and the enduring essence of human connection.

The blend of AI and memory conservation serves as a poignant reminder: even as we press forward into a future shaped by artificial intelligence, the stories, memories, and voices of our past continue to resonate, echoing in the code and algorithms of our digital tomorrow. With all this in mind, maybe, it's time for you to start planning your digital afterlife.


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