Grieving relatives use AI to connect with deceased loved ones

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In 2020, a Korean documentary film team invited a mother who had lost her 7-year-old daughter to an incurable disease to their show. The girl’s death was so sudden — she died a week after her diagnosis in 2016 — that mother Jang Ji-Sun didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. For three years she was obsessed with losing her daughter.

The producers of the documentary “Meeting You” created a digitized representation of the child, which the mother could see through a virtual reality headset (television viewers could also see the image of the daughter).

In the show, the virtual girl Na-yeon appeared from behind a pile of wood and runs to her mother, calling, “Mom.” The mother burst into tears and said, “Mom missed you so much, Na-yeon.” The video for the show reportedly received 19 million views. While the experience was painful, the mother told the Korean Times that she would do it again if she could; she finally had a chance to say goodbye.

In the Korean TV documentary “Meeting You,” Jang Ji-Sun practically embraces a digitized reconstruction of her 7-year-old daughter, who died in 2016. (Video: MBC)

“I was worried about how the mother would react” to the digitized daughter, Kim Jong-woo, the documentary’s producer, told the paper. “No matter how hard we tried to make the character similar, she can still tell the difference. But she said she was happy to see even a small reflection of Na-yeon.

People have always wanted contact with their loved ones after death. Efforts to keep in touch with the dead have been around for centuries, such as taking pictures of dead children, holding séances, and even keeping the corpse in the house for posterity. But artificial intelligence and virtual reality and other technological advances have brought us one giant step closer to bringing the dead back to life.

“It’s something very important for people to keep connected to something they loved,” said Sherman Lee, associate professor of psychology at Christopher Newport University in Newport News and director of the Pandemic Grief Project.

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Staying connected with your loved one, such as listening to old voicemails, watching old videos, and engaging with chatbots that can speak in your loved one’s voice, can be comforting. But it can also exacerbate grief, especially for those whose loved ones die by suicide, as people relive the loss, research suggests.

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“If you ask me, is watching videos of your deceased spouse every night a useful thing to do instead of re-engaging in the world and spending that time with friends and family? No, I don’t think it’s helpful,” Lee said. “But would it make sense to break all the videos and lock them in the room? It will worsen the grieving process.”

Science has certainly taken an interest in those who have lost touch with their loved ones.

For example, Hossein Rahnama, a professor at the Metropolitan University of Toronto and a research affiliate of the MIT Media Lab, has created Augmented Eternity, a platform that allows someone to create a digital persona from a deceased person’s photos, texts, emails, social media. news, public announcements and blog posts that will be able to communicate with relatives and others.

Models require massive amounts of data to make reliable predictions about what the deceased said. Rahnam said this will work well for millennials, who post everything they do on the Internet, but less well for older people who aren’t as Internet-savvy or savvy. Rahnam receives emails almost every week from people who are terminally ill asking if there is a way to preserve their legacy for their loved ones. He said he now has a beta group of 25 people testing his product. His goal is for consumers to one day be able to create their own timeless digital entities.

In June, Amazon unveiled a new feature it’s developing for Alexa, where the virtual assistant can read stories aloud in the voice of a deceased loved one after hearing that person speak for a minute. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) “While artificial intelligence can’t take away that pain of loss, it can certainly preserve their memories,” said Rohit Prasad, senior vice president and chief scientist for Amazon Alexa.

And several AI entrepreneurs, including James Vlahos of HereAfter AI and Eugenia Kuyda, who co-founded artificial intelligence startups Luka and Replika, have turned their efforts to representing people virtually, using data from their digital footprint to create an avatar. or a chatbot that can interact with family members after they’ve passed.

The HereAfter app takes users through the interview process before they die, encouraging them to recall stories and memories that are then recorded. After they’re gone, family members can ask questions and the app answers in the dead person’s voice using the accumulated interview information, almost like engaging in a conversation.

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Vlahos, HereAfter’s CEO, said he was motivated to start the company after creating a chatbot, or Dadbot, as he calls it, from about a dozen hours of recordings he made of his father after his father died in 2016. was diagnosed with lung cancer. .

Vlahos transcribed these conversations and compiled his memories of his father. He then used the PullString software platform to program the Dadbot. Vlahos spent a year inputting strings of conversations and teaching the robot to interpret what people said. When you send a message or ask a question, Dad responds in a similar way to his father through a text message, audio of a story or song, or even a photo.

He chats with Dadbot every month whenever he wants to hear his voice. He once went to where his father’s ashes were scattered, overlooking Memorial Stadium on the UC Berkeley campus, where his father rarely missed a football game, and asked his dad to sing him the Cal spirit song, which he did.

Vlahos said Dadbot doesn’t make him miss his father any less. “But I really like that he can feel more present to me, and the aspects of his personality that I like are less clouded over time,” he said.

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Kuyda created a chatbot for dear friend and roommate Roman Mazurenko for a similar reason. She and Mazurenko had moved from Moscow to the United States in 2015 and were living together in San Francisco when Mazurenko was killed by a hit-and-run driver during a short trip home. At the time, her company, Luka, was building chatbot-based virtual assistants. After Mazurenko’s death, Kuyda decided to use the 10,000 text messages she and Mazurenko had exchanged, as well as text messages Mazurenko had sent to others, to create a digital version of him.

Their communication was limited to text messages on the messaging app, but for those who knew Mazurenko, his responses on the app were accurate. They sounded like him because they were mostly his answers, but made at a different time in a different context.

“It was just nice to remember him in a special way and talk to him like we used to,” she said.

The company made an app called Roman Mazurenko publicly available, and people who didn’t even know him started downloading it and sending him text messages. Some contacted the company asking it to make bots for their own loved ones.

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She was 30 at the time and he was the first significant person in her life to die. She struggled with how someone so ever-present was no longer there. She said as if he never existed. “It was therapeutic for me to be able to go back to him, to keep in touch with us before,” she said. Five years later, she still texts his chatbot every week or two.

Psychologists say that creating a virtual copy of a lost loved one can be therapeutic, especially when the issues are unresolved, but could it lead to someone wanting to stay in that virtual world of their loved one?

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“If someone is given the chance to see their loved one again, will it bring them comfort, or will it become an addiction?” says clinical psychologist Albert “Skip” Rizzo, director of Virtual Reality in Medicine at the Institute for Creative Technologies and a researcher in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine.

Grief therapists sometimes invite people to have an imaginary conversation with the deceased or to write a letter or role play with the therapists. Using a digital recreation of the dead, especially in virtual reality, would make the experience more immersive.

It is understandable why people want to hold on to their loved ones.

One of our main focuses is to hold on to others, especially those who provide a secure base, such as a parent to a child, said Robert Neimeyer, director of the Portland Loss and Transition Institute. “These are among our strongest evolutionary imperatives as beings, and our technologies are recruited to support that goal,” he said.

After the telephone was invented, he said, Thomas Edison was interested in developing a “spirit telephone” to somehow communicate with the dead. And seeing a photo of a dead son who died at the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War was as extraordinary an experience for parents at the time as it was for a mother to see her dead daughter in virtual reality on video, Neimeier said.

“What is surreal in one era quickly becomes commonplace in the next,” he said. “Generally in life, we do not grow as people by eliminating what we have loved, how we have loved what we have loved. It’s a matter of being different. How can we use this relationship as a resource? I think technology can facilitate that.

The logistics of death can be overwhelming. New apps can offer help.


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