Technology that lets us “speak” to our dead relatives has arrived. Are we ready?
“The biggest issue with the [existing] technology is the idea you can generate a single universal person,” says Justin Harrison, founder of a soon-to-launch service called You, Only Virtual. “But the way we experience people is unique to us.”
You, Only Virtual and a few other startups want to go further, arguing that recounting memories won’t capture the fundamental essence of a relationship between two people. Harrison wants to create a personalized bot that’s for you and you alone.
The first incarnation of the service, which is set to launch in early 2023, will allow people to build a bot by uploading someone’s text messages, emails, and voice conversations. Ultimately, Harrison hopes, people will feed it data as they go; the company is currently building a communication platform that customers will be able to use to message and talk with loved ones while they’re still alive. That way, all the data will be readily available to be turned into a bot once they’re not.
That is exactly what Harrison has done with his mother, Melodi, who has stage 4 cancer: “I built it by hand using five years of my messages with her. It took 12 hours to export, and it runs to thousands of pages,” he says of his chatbot.
Harrison says the interactions he has with the bot are more meaningful to him than if it were simply regurgitating memories. Bot Melodi uses the phrases his mother uses and replies to him in the way she’d reply—calling him “honey,” using the emojis she’d use and the same quirks of spelling. He won’t be able to ask Melodi’s avatar questions about her life, but that doesn’t bother him. The point, for him, is to capture the way someone communicates. “Just recounting memories has little to do with the essence of a relationship,” he says.
Avatars that people feel a deep personal connection with can have staying power. In 2016, entrepreneur Eugenia Kuyda built what is thought to be the first bot of this kind after her friend Roman died, using her text conversations with him. (She later founded a startup called Replika, which creates virtual companions not based on real people.)
She found it a hugely helpful way to process her grief, and she still speaks to Roman’s bot today, she says, especially around his birthday and the anniversary of his passing.
But she warns that users need to be careful not to think this technology is re-creating or even preserving people. “I didn’t want to bring back his clone, but his memory,” she says. The intention was to “create a digital monument where you can interact with that person, not in order to pretend they’re alive, but to hear about them, remember how they were, and be inspired by them again.”