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Using AI To Keep Loved Ones Alive

Can AI (Artificial Intelligence) make dealing with grief easier for us? Let’s ask a less abstract question: Have you ever lost someone and thought “I’d do anything to just have a few more hours with them, see them one more time, have one final conversation…”? Confronted with death, most of us struggle to come to terms and cope with its finality, its irreversibility. It’s human. In the presence of death, we feel helpless and powerless. There’s nothing we can do or say to bring back the deceased. Humankind has become incredibly creative and admittedly successful at prolonging life, but no amount of money can buy those who have died even just a little bit more life.

What if death had become only metaphysically irreversible, though? What if we could resurrect the dead, so to speak? What if we could “technologically reinvigorate the departed” as an article reviewing a groundbreaking virtual reality endeavour called “Project Elysium” words it? What if we could communicate with the dead as if they were still alive – and it wouldn’t require any kind of spirituality but just technology? The latter has indeed advanced so much that it is already possible – with the help of AI (Artificial Intelligence) and VR (Virtual Reality) – to see and even interact with a dead loved one, to have one more or even many more conversations with, well, some form of a re-animated version of them.

This article gives an overview of what’s currently already possible and on the market and what big tech companies are planning for the future. It takes a look at what possibilities and opportunities these technological advances offer and what potential dangers they entail. We also try and answer questions like “Is it morally and ethically okay to use a dead person’s digital fingerprint as well as other data they left behind without their consent?”, “Do the potential benefits (e.g. healing, closure,…) outweigh the dangers?” and “What are the cultural and psychological consequences of making this kind of technology commercially available to the masses?”

Digital Creations of Deceased Relatives

One photo is enough to get up to 20 different animated expressions or gestures of your deceased loved one – like for example a compassionate gaze, a nod of approval or having a kiss blown at you. That might not impress you at first glance in a day and age where HD videos can be recorded with the mobile phone in your pocket and gigabytes upon gigabytes of cloud storage readily available. However, if your parent, grandparent or favourite auntie died before everyday moments were easily captured as moving images and all you have is this one good picture of them, this possibility might mean the world to you.

Mother gets to meet the VR version of her late 7-year-old daughter in a harrowing TV documentary

Whereas the above-mentioned technology is already available for the masses, the next one isn’t – yet – but shows what is already possible given the time and money: For a South Korean TV documentary developers from six different studios worked for almost a year on creating a Virtual Reality (VR) simulacrum of a seven-year-old child, so her mother could interact with her one last time. Nayeon had died from blood cancer in 2016. The simulation allowed her mum, Jang Ji-sung, to see her daughter moving, dancing, smiling as if she was standing right in front of her, hear her voice, have a scripted conversation, and even play with her for a little while. A 10-minute video snippet of the “Meeting You” documentary with English subtitles has almost 28 million views on YouTube. The comments reveal that many find it heartbreaking to watch how the mother tries to touch, to hug Nayeon one last time as she seems so real and all her arms are grasping is thin air. Some people voice their concerns that this might after all have been rather cruel for Jang Ji-sung and done more harm than good. However, the mother stated in a blog post some months after the documentary was filmed that it was a good experience and helped her.

Grief bots will allow us to have the experience of having conversations with the dead

If seeing your deceased loved one in 3D through VR glasses and interacting with them sounds too creepy, what about just texting with the dead? What if you were still able to have conversations with your best friend who died in an accident or let your kids get to know your late father’s wonderful personality through having them chat to a so-called grief bot? Prototypes already exist and work. They use AI programmes that use the digital fingerprint of a person – including text messages, Facebook posts, tweets, Snapchats, data from video snippets and voice messages. The more data these artificial neural networks get fed, the more accurately will the grief bot’s knowledge, linguistic patterns, tone of voice and sense of humour resemble that of the deceased. The prognosis is that grief bots will become commercially available within the next five to eight years.

Can digital creations of the deceased help us grieve and heal?

The minds behind these technological advances all have one thing in common: They have experienced loss and grief. Their motivation was initially a personal one, even though the goal is to eventually make the product, the software available to everyone and ultimately, to earn money with it. Are there new, different ways and approaches of dealing with grief that we, as humankind, haven’t explored yet? Maybe there’s a chance to use all the data that we accumulate over the course of a lifetime – 50 to 60 years from now that will be one trillion gigabytes per person – for something good, something beneficial. If we can breathe some artificial life into all that data and allow our family and friends to recreate moments of connection with digital versions of us once we are gone, get closure if they feel the need for that, ease their pain, find healing, somehow support them on their grief journey from the afterlife, why not?

The idea of resurrecting the dead and communicating or interacting with them in one form or another has been explored many a time in literature, movies and TV series. An often-cited example is the Black Mirror episode “Be right back” (second season) in which a widow orders a human-like robot, an Android clone version of her late husband, in an attempt to find a way of coping with her grief. She comes to realise, though, that despite the Android speaking, moving, behaving, thinking almost exactly like the love of her life that she lost, he is not quite the same and never can be. She reaches a point, where she’s too attached to let the Android go and at the same time can’t bear to live with him anymore either.

The Harry Potter series includes a tale of three brothers who strike a deal with death upon meeting him. The result are the so-called “Deathly Hallows” – the most powerful wand in the world that makes its owner invincible, the invisibility cloak that makes it impossible for death to find the person hiding underneath it and the resurrection stone that gives the owner the power to bring a person back from the dead. The brother who asked for the latter uses it to re-animate a woman he fell in love with when he was younger and who died unexpectedly. What he gets is more than a shadow of his beloved but less than a human being. Eventually, he can’t stand to see this not-dead-but-not-quite-alive-either version of his partner suffer this half-existence any longer and ends up killing himself to be reunited with her in death.

Technology – even though it is advancing at a difficult-to-keep-up-with pace – has severe limitations when it comes to resurrecting the dead as AI recreations. That painful void we are left with when we lose a loved one can’t ever be filled with a digitalised version of their personality. So, when we entertain the idea of finding comfort in and maybe even healing through interacting with an artificially created version of our deceased, we also have to ask ourselves: If we struggle to cope with the reality of death, what makes us believe we’d be able to deal any better with a reality where the deceased exist in a strange stage between dead but not quite gone from this world?

Grief is a deeply individual journey, though, and everyone moves through its stages at their own pace and finds their own ways of coping with the loss they’re facing. Maybe the AI approach won’t be beneficial for everyone but could be of crucial help to some individuals – given the right professional support and guidance around using it.

Current Tools, Patents & Griefbots

Let’s have a look at what’s currently possible first before we explore this further: The genealogy platform MyHeritage offers its users a tool they call Deep Nostalgia™. Their aim was to “animate the faces in historical photos and create high-quality, realistic video footage” that gives users a chance at an artificial emotional connection with a simulation of their deceased ancestors. To make that possible, MyHeritage cooperated with D-ID, an Israeli tech company that specialises in video reenactment. They fed their deep learning algorithm with blueprint videos of a selection of 20 movement sequences and gestures that were acted out by MyHeritage employees. The software is intelligent enough to pick the unique movement that is most likely going to give the smoothest, most realistic result based on the face in the uploaded photo. However, users can override the algorithm and pick one of the 19 other gestures if they want to. According to the MyHeritage website, over 87 million animations have been created already. If you want to see your great-grandmother blow a kiss at you, all it takes is creating a free account, uploading a photo that gets enhanced, run through the software and in less than half a minute, you’ll have a moving picture. If you want to be able to use Deep Nostalgia™ on an unlimited number of photos and get rid of the MyHeritage watermark, you’ll have to sign up for a complete subscription, though. While some people find it fascinating and even comforting to see their dead loved ones’ features animated, others are creeped out by these deepfakes and worry about the ways they can potentially be abused.

Communicating with the dead via texting grief bots – the good & the bad

Grief bots allow loved ones to have text conversations with the deceased based on data collected during their lifetime.

For those willing to take it one step further and communicate with the dead or whatever technology is capable of preserving their personality, so-called grief bots will only take a few more years before they become available to the masses. Working prototypes have been developed in different parts of the world and are already being used. One of them was created by Eugenia Kuyda who lost her best friend Roman Mazurenko in a car accident in 2015. Kuyda is the co-founder and CEO of a Russian AI startup that develops chatbots, so she is very familiar with the possibilities and current limitations of this type of digital interaction between humans and AI algorithms.

Since launching “Romanbot”, Kuyda has helped it evolve. On request from whoever is chatting to it, it can now send photos that have been uploaded to its databank. The deep learning programme is now also able to break up Roman’s original text messages into fragments and combine them with other words to create new, unique sentences. The reactions Kuyda has received from friends and family range from gratitude, approval and amazement to disappointment (because the bot sometimes answers “incorrectly”, so, not in the manner that Roman would have). One of Roman’s friends even called it “rushed”, “half-baked” and “very bad” in a Facebook comment. However, Roman’s mother really enjoys interacting with the bot and went as far as saying it saved her family’s lives. 

Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad created the Mushtaq Ahmad Mirza Project, named after his late father who died in 2013, “to fundamentally transform the experience of bereavement and loss”. Ahmad is a principal data scientist at KenSci and one of the leading figures when it comes to grief bots. He acknowledges that it’s rather about having an experience of the dead – he wanted to give his daughter the chance to at least virtually meet a simulation of her grandfather who died before she was born – than with the dead. The emphasis is clearly on us interacting with a simulation of our deceased loved one. Ahmad is very aware of the moral and ethical complexity of bringing the dearly departed back to life and addresses them in a piece he wrote for Aeon, a magazine of ideas and culture. On a page called “Implications” on the Mushtaq Ahmad Mirza Project’s website, Muhammad writes: “Just because we can create such simulations does not mean that we should create these simulations.” However, the struggle of coping with loss and the yearning for communicating with the dead is probably as old as humankind itself and technology is undoubtedly headed in that direction with giant strides.

Microsoft files patent for grief chatbot with voice function

Microsoft seems to be planning a chatbot that incorporates having out-loud conversations like when we speak to Siri or Alexa these days. The company filed a by now already widely discussed patent titled “Creating a Conversational Chat Bot of a Specific Person” in December last year. Microsoft states that “The specific person [who the chatbot represents] may correspond to a past or present entity (or a version thereof), such as a friend, a relative, an acquaintance, a celebrity, a fictional character, a historical figure, a random entity etc.” as reports in an article on the subject. Furthermore, “a 2D/3D model of the specific person may be generated using images, depth information, and/or video data associated with the specific person.” Based on the wording of the patent, the tech giant intends to use social data such as “images, voice data, social media posts, electronic messages [and] written letters” to “create or modify a special index in the theme of the specific person’s personality.” This all may or may not come to fruition in the future, but given the potential market for it and the money Microsoft has to work on such an idea, there’s a strong possibility of the patent being used.

Immersing yourself in VR to interact with your deceased loved one – gamification as a therapy model?

Steve Koutsouliotas and Nick Stavrou had goals for an even more immersive experience than the one Microsoft patented – but also a lot less money. Koutsouliotas and Stavrou are best friends, game designers and both lost their fathers unexpectedly. Their idea was to create a VR video game that would allow users to meet a digitalised version of their deceased loved one at one of their favourite places (e.g. the pub or the golf course) and interact with them. They entered a virtual reality competition with a demo version of “Project Elysium” but as it didn’t win, they couldn’t find investors that would have allowed them to pursue the project. When interviewed for an article in the business magazine FastCompany in 2015, Stavrou said: “We’re giving people the opportunity to spend time with their loved ones in a custom-made, private and scripted virtual environment. It’s a therapeutic experience aimed to help the people left behind work through their grief.”

The two friends had thought hard about how to emotionally safeguard “Project Elysium”, so the grieving process would be supported rather than hindered or avoided. To achieve that, they worked with grief counsellors. What they came up with was:

  • Enforcement of a strict waiting period of a minimum of six months between the death of a loved one and when a person could become a client and create their personal VR sanctuary.
  • Clients would have needed to be next of kin or be able to show permission from a family member of the person who died or have power of attorney.
  • Something akin to a “kill switch” that would log the user out of the game after a certain amount of time and impose a “cool down” period before they could play again
  • A check-in function that would help the gamer assess and reflect how they’re dealing with the VR experience they just had.
  • Ideally, they would have liked for clients to work with therapists or counsellors alongside using “Project Elysium” to process their grief.

Even though “Project Elysium” never made it past the demo stage, Koutsouliotas’ and Stavrou’s idea was eventually implemented as a one-off experience for the above mentioned “Meeting You” documentary – showing that it can be done.

Can We Use AI to Cope with Loss?

According to Sherry Schachter, the executive director emerita of bereavement services at Calvary Hospital, there are two types of grievers: Intuitive and instrumental ones. When interviewed for a article titled “Can bots help us deal with grief?” she goes on to explain that the former, mostly women, find it easier to share and express their emotions in support groups. Instrumental grievers, however, have a more cognitive approach and tend to process their emotions in private. For them, so Schachter, interacting with a grief bot as designed by Ahmad or Kuyda might be more comfortable and, more importantly, a helpful tool to support their grieving journey.

The tanatologist expert in Digital Death and philosopher Davide Sisto emphasises the risk  of potential “psychic and emotional dependence” when asked about the “philosophical, psychological and cultural consequences of using virtual reality to support mourning management” for an article in the ImpactsCool magazine.

Amber Davisson, associate professor of communication and philosophy at Keene State College, shares similar concerns in a statement she gave regarding “The ethics of rebooting the dead”. She says: “Instead of being this memory that I’m transported to, it’s deception, and deception is far more painful.” Davisson also points out that the dead don’t have any say over what is being done to their digitalised personality post mortem nor over what their AI versions are made to do in virtual reality – which might differ from how the person might have actually (re)acted while still alive.

This brings up a whole other range of questions: Who will be able to give permission what data can and can’t be used for an AI version of a deceased person? We have different relationships with different people. When the deep learning software ingests all that is available as a digital fingerprint of a person – including thousands, if not millions of text messages with various people – to create an AI version of them, we might end up discovering aspects of our loved one’s or learn something about them that we were previously oblivious to and we might not like. How will we deal with potentially having to adjust our image of them after their death? Anything digital can be tampered with – may it be through hacking or a bug (which would expose us to manipulation in an already emotionally vulnerable state) or by our own choice (what if we decide to “edit out” personality traits of our loved ones that we had difficulties dealing with when they were alive?).

This is really just a brief overview of the potential dangers and moral dilemmas we might be facing in the not too far off future. That’s why Muhammad, who developed one of the grief bots mentioned above, stresses: “If we don’t start a discussion about the possibility and viability of simulations of the deceased now, then they will be thrust upon us when we’re not ready for them in the near future.”
Death is inherently part of life and also what makes it so precious. You can’t spare your loved ones the grief they’ll have to face when you die one day. You can, however, help your loved ones by pre-arranging your funeral, so they don’t have to worry about what you would have wanted for your final send-off or make arrangements when the grief of losing you is the most intense. We, at Safe Hands, are dedicated to not only provide you with the best prepaid funeral plan options but also be there for your loved ones through this difficult time. Our Bereavement Support Team will reach out to your family, when the time comes, and offer support. We are here to help you if you have any questions regarding our different funeral plans.