AI gives impression of life after death

FRIDAY, APRIL 05, 2024

Even though they cannot pass the Turing test, a machine communicating with a human without seeming like a machine), for families who are coping with the loss of their loved ones, grief chatbots are helping them reconnect with the dead and find solace in the digital world.

Since 2022, Super Brain, an artificial intelligence startup in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, has created digital avatars for bereavement support for more than 600 families, using tools involving AI and machine learning.

“Technically, digital immortality is coming, which enables everyone to have a virtual online twin,” Zhang Zewei, co-founder of the AI startup, says.

While building avatars of the dead, Zhang adds, the company has helped more than 100 tech-savvy clients to create their virtual avatars based on their digital trails, including emails, photos and social media posts, with prices ranging from thousands of yuan to 10,000 yuan ($1,390).

Usually within a week, technicians from Super Brain can generate a lifelike chatbot, which can interact with people, according to Zhang.

“With enough data inputs, the AI chatbot can learn the thinking patterns of the person it ‘cloned’,” the 32-year-old entrepreneur says, adding technology may provide an answer to humans’ quest for immortality.

“I saw the demand from the market, and technology helps us to build a bridge between life and death, beyond time and space,” he adds.

Among Zhang’s clients, some parents lost their single child, a woman who wants to say goodbye to her boyfriend who died in an accident, and a mother who asks to “revive” her husband to comfort their daughter.

Zhang still remembers his first client, also his friend, whose father died in an accident. To prepare his friend’s grandmother for the loss, Zhang created a chatbot like the father, “talking” with the grandma.

It may sound weird to some, but Zhang believes behind the technology is the emotional support that fascinates people who combat regret, grief and loneliness after they lose their loved ones.

“For people who are not ready to deal with death, technology can help alleviate their prolonged grief and provide a sense of closure,” Zhang says, adding it provides a means to remember the deceased, which is like the Tomb Sweeping Day when people remember and honour the dead. This year it falls on Thursday.

For many of Super Brain’s clients, Zhang says digital avatars offer a rare chance to bid farewell and ease the pain of their loss. However, he’s still sceptical about the depth of connection that technology can offer. “A chatbot has no warmth,” he argues, highlighting that these avatars cannot stay up to date with current information.

In response to these limitations, Zhang’s studio has introduced a counselling service that blends AI with a human touch. While the digital replica emulates the look and voice of the departed, a trained mental therapist guides the conversation in real time. “This ensures more genuine and controlled interactions,” he says.

Digital comfort

Using technology in dealing with bereavement is becoming a reality. One of the latest cases gone viral is that of Bao Xiaobo, also known as Tino Bao, a musician born in Taiwan, who brought his deceased daughter “back to life” through AI. His daughter Bao Rong, or Feli Bao, died of a rare blood disease at the age of 22 in 2021 and had a digital replica generated by her father, which was recently posted on social media with the avatar singing a birthday song for her mother in a video. Along with the video, Bao Xiaobo writes: “Dear Feli, welcome back from the digital world!”

Through the X Eva app developed by AI company Xiaoice, which enables users to create AI clones of real individuals, Bao Xiaobo digitally cloned his daughter, embedding her voice and memory data. Powered by large language models, the heartbroken father can talk to her again in the parallel world.

It took him more than eight months to collect and repair his daughter’s voice data. To make the avatar close to Feli Bao, her parents have uploaded her life moments, from the day she was born, her friends when she was 3 years old, her first figure-skating class, films and songs she liked, and her favourite food to her last days in the hospital.

“It has been painful to remember all these, which have dragged my wife back to the past,” Bao Xiaobo told news website 36Kr, hoping that his daughter can live forever in the digital world.

Although admitting that the current technology cannot really “revive” her daughter, Bao Xiaobo says with proper use, AI can be a tool to express condolences, especially for those who lost their beloved. He established the ILU company to make the technology accessible to more people. ILU is short for “I love you”, which is the last three letters that his daughter wrote with her fingers on her iPad in her last days.

“From my point of view, I want to promote the technology to let the public understand its meaning in providing grief support to the bereaved,” Bao Xiaobo says.

With the technological advances in AI, like Chat GPT chatbot and image generator Midjourney, there have been several startups, including Super Brain and ILU, providing such services. On the e-commerce platform Taobao, services to bring old photos alive cost from tens of yuan to hundreds of yuan.

On video-sharing platforms, like Douyin and Bilibili, some bloggers have shared their experiences using AI to speak to their loved ones who have died. However, this innovative approach in mourning was met with mixed reactions with some warning that there could be an issue if people end up drowning in their emotions.

Ethical concerns

As the technology designed to emulate dead people is available to the wider public, tech experts and psychologists hold cautious attitudes toward the idea.

Just like the theme explored in the episode of Be Right Back, of Netflix sci-fi series Black Mirror, can an AI robot replace a late lover? In the episode, a pregnant woman, Martha, tries an online service to communicate with the dead after the sudden loss of her fiance, Ash. Although sharing Ash’s appearance, sadly not the subtle details of his personality, Martha consigns the robot to her attic in the end, saying: “You’re just a few ripples of you. There’s no history to you.”

Wang Qiang, a psychologist in Beijing, says psychological theories hold that in grieving the bereaved need to restructure their relationship and bond with the deceased, as the end of the physical relationship with the dead person needs to be accepted.

“Although AI can capture casual human interaction, these ‘grief bots’ may continue a kind of fake emotional bond to the deceased, which may limit the emotional and psychological health of their users, causing them difficulty, or even never, to let go,” Wang says.

According to a study on the ethics of “death bots” (chatbots of the dead) published in the journal Science and Engineering Ethics in 2022, dignity, autonomy and well-being are some of the most pressing ethical issues concerning the influence of death bots on bereaved users.

In a successful grief process, the death of the deceased person is fully acknowledged, which means grief thus constitutes a recognition of loss, but death bots, through their imitation of the deceased person’s manner of interaction and communication style, make the deceased appear not quite gone, the study says.

Liang Zheng, deputy director of the Institute for AI International Governance, at Tsinghua University, has doubts about the application. He says: “Emotion, consciousness and value are personal experiences that cannot be recorded by data”.

No matter how closely one can AI imitate a person, it cannot replace the real person, he adds.

Zhang from Super Brain agrees that reconnecting with the dead may not be a good idea for everyone.

Before providing the service, his team will briefly communicate with clients about their purpose and relationship with the people they want to simulate and talk to. Then, Zhang’s team will decide whether the client is mentally ready to receive the service.

“There was a mother who contacted me to ‘clone’ her daughter. She has tried to commit suicide several times after losing her dearest. On the phone, she couldn’t stop crying. After consulting a professional psychologist, we rejected her, because in her case, AI technology may harm her grieving process,” Zhang says.

He adds that the assessment procedure has helped select the “proper” clients among more than 2,000 orders.

Legal boundaries

While using AI to stay in touch with a loved one after their death, a surge in avatars of deceased celebrities, including singer and actor Qiao Renliang, Chinese-Canadian actor Godfrey Gao and Chinese American pop diva CoCo Lee, has sparked debate about the dignity of the dead and the legal boundaries in AI application.

Among these videos, the avatar of Lee says: “I will be forever here for you”; and the virtual Qiao says: “Actually I haven’t left.”

When Qiao’s father saw his son’s video sent by his niece, he felt uncomfortable and asked the creators to delete the post. “They didn’t ask for our permission. It is our indescribable pain,” the father told a newspaper.

The father’s response has gone viral on the micro-blogging platform Sina Weibo, which has been viewed more than 240 million times, triggering wide discussion about the questions: What are the implications when AI copies can impersonate public figures without their consent, and how does the law respond?

Jiang Qiulian, the mother of a Chinese student who was stabbed to death outside her apartment in Japan in 2016, also expresses her worries about the trend. “If AI can ‘revive’ my daughter, it should be only my choice to do it. Do you know anything about my daughter or our bond? You do not, so no one can make the decision, except me!” Jiang writes in her post on Sina Weibo.

An online survey on AI rendition of deceased celebrities showed more than 80 per cent of 32,180 respondents were against such technology, saying it treats others’ pain and suffering as a commodity.

As a result, the posts of the renditions of the deceased celebrities were deleted later.

Zhang Linghan, a professor at Beijing-based China University of Political Science and Law’s Institute of Data Law, says that in the Civil Code, there are regulations involving the protection of the interests of the personality of the deceased, such as rights of image, privacy and reputation.

She admits that the application of AI in “reviving” the dead has posed new challenges in how the technology has violated the rights of the dead.

“Without consent from the families of the deceased, digital simulations of the dead, no matter a celebrity or not, is no doubt an infringement action,” Zhang says.

Facing the fast development of AI, she says how to let supervision catch up with the advances of technology is not an easy task, but the bottom line is that the development of technology cannot violate national security, social public interests and citizens’ rights and interests.

The rise of generative AI, with its ability to bring dead celebrities and others back to life in ways nearly identical to their living presence, has prompted opportunities for technology companies from home and abroad.

Chatbots and voice assistants, like Siri and Alexa, have gone from high-tech novelties to a part of daily life worldwide. Talking to devices about everything from the weather forecast to the meaning of life is no longer a rare thing. For entrepreneurs, like Zhang Zewei, staying in touch with deceased loved ones is changing the idea about death.

In the United States, companies, such as DeepBrain AI and StoryFile, have already developed AI-based services to help their users stay in touch with a loved one after their death. Somnium Space, based in London, wants to create virtual clones while users are still alive so that they then can exist in a parallel universe after their death.

No matter accepting it or not, digital immortality is changing our way of mourning the deceased. In January 2022, funeral services provider Shanghai Fushouyuan conducted its first AI-assisted funeral, when colleagues and students of a deceased surgeon had the opportunity to chat with his digital replica on a screen, for a final farewell.

Zhang Zewei says: “There are no technical challenges. The question is: Are we ready to accept the digital immortality?”

Wang Qian

China Daily

Asia News Network