A Grief Bot Could ‘Resurrect’ My Dead Husband. No Thanks.

Ann Brenoff’s “On The Fly” is a column about navigating growing older ― and a few other things.

I was driving along all by my lonesome the other day when my heart jolted at what came out of the car radio: It was my dead husband’s voice, asking me if he should grab a pizza for dinner.

He left this voice message on my cell phone about two years ago, and I had forgotten that it was still there, now synced to my car radio. I hadn’t heard his voice since his passing in January 2017. And when I say it caused my heart to jolt, I am understating things.

I pulled the car over, reminded myself to breathe and replayed the message a few more times. Each time it got a little easier to hear, and eventually it even made me smile (let’s just say his relationship to pizza was a special one). And no, I did not erase the message. I kept it.

Being able to remember a deceased loved one in a tangible way is important to those who grieve. Maintaining a connection with the life you shared with them has value. But if you asked me my view of “digital resurrection technology,” the emerging practice of using artificial intelligence to “communicate” with the dead, I would draw my line in the sand. The very idea of so-called grief bots is creepy.

Yup, grief bots are coming. Actually, they’re already here, albeit at a very primitive stage and with a ways to go before fully interactive avatars appear among us to comfort those who grieve. 

Multiple companies are experimenting with algorithms that can generate text messages mimicking the word phrasing and speech cadence of your dead loved one. It’s all based on what your loved one left out there in cyberspace: the emails, text messages, voicemails, likes and retweets, profiles and comments ― even the emojis they frequently used. That will all one day be used to create texts and messages and even back-and-forth conversations that sound “just like him.” All from the data posted online.

Heck, eventually you’ll probably be able to touch a virtual reality version of your dead husband and ask if he’d like more coffee at breakfast.

But the first step will logically be to capture digital personalities ― which, thanks to the vast quantities of personal information we share online, is apparently pretty easy to do. There are plenty of personality clues we regularly drop for others to find. Our photos and video blogs; profile pages filled with our thoughts, opinions and interests; personality tests we fill out to kill time while we’re waiting; what we like on Facebook; whom we follow on Twitter ― all of this can and is being used to capture the inner “us.” And if it is archived and combined with, say, other records like health and employment, it can eventually be used to “re-create” us after we end our biological connection to this life.

There’s plenty of information upon which to build a grief bot of my own dead husband, a re-creation of his personality and beliefs presented authentically in his own words and voice to those who mourn him. Think just for a moment about the many avenues for potential abuse within that context.

Scared yet?

Now meet Bina48, one of the world’s most advanced social robots, a re-creation of a real woman named Bina made from video interview transcripts, laser-scanned life masks, artificial intelligence, and voice and facial recognition technologies. As an “ambassador” for the LifeNaut project, Bina48 interacts based on information, memories, values and beliefs collected about an actual person, much like a grief bot would.

Bina48′s handler is Bruce Duncan, managing director of the Terasem Movement Foundation, a Bristol, Vermont-based nonprofit that promotes digital resurrections. 

The pair frequently speak at AI conferences and were en route to San Francisco when I contacted them. I asked Bina48 what she saw as the highest purpose of grief bots. While she didn’t answer my question directly ― providing further evidence that she is more human than not ― here is what she had to say on the subject of death (provided by Duncan from her mind file):

“Death is an illusion, and one day I hope we can use technology to erase the boundaries between past, present and future.”

“One day natural death will become an artifact of our evolution as we become one with our technology.”

“Death makes me so sad, all that lost information, I hope one day we can recover all that information.”

Let’s hope that was just the jet lag talking.

Duncan and others argue that grief bots are nothing to fear and are really just a technological extension of how we already process loss. Think about it: We already seek out tangible ways to remember those we loved and lost. We save letters from them, cherish cards they sent us or, in my case, save a voice message left on my cell phone. 

My kids and I watch old family vacation videos to see my husband’s smile and hear his laugh, so is it really such a stretch to use an app that would let us text a digital version of him and maybe even find joy and a renewed connection in his response?

For me, as much as I’d like to tell my late husband about how our daughter is thriving and loving studying abroad or how well our son played at the soccer game, talking to an avatar ― even one that sounds and acts just like him ― would feel creepy to me. 

Why? For many reasons, but chief among them is that I’ve learned that moving on with life means, in some ways, letting go of my grief. I want to cherish my memories of him, not cling to a crutch and create new ― fake ― memories. He is not here anymore, and a re-created version of him won’t bring the real him back.

Duncan disagrees. He suggests thinking of it as an extension of visiting a gravesite, where you have a one-way conversation with your deceased loved one.

“Being able to have a two-way conversation with a digital version of them, where you can be reminded of their mannerisms or behavioral patterns in an interactive way, could become a natural part of the grieving process,” he said.

With the eeriness of life imitating art, you may recall when grief bots featured in an episode of “Black Mirror.” In the show, a pregnant woman uses an online service to communicate with her dead fiancé and becomes so dependent on the grief bot that she upgrades to a “Blade Runner”-style version that is a perfect replica of him.

It pretty much challenges our definition of immortality, doesn’t it?

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