Side by side, four young cousins chat with their grandmother via a video link. ‘What’s your favourite sport?’ one of them asks Marina Smith as she reclines in a comfy armchair in her Nottinghamshire home. ‘It used to be tennis and hockey and I am also very interested in horse-jumping,’ the 87-year-old replies, before adding: ‘But I don’t ride a horse!’
The response elicits a chuckle from her grandchildren who continue to talk about her likes and dislikes, as well as enquiring what it’s like to be a grandparent.
An everyday scene, in other words. Except for one fact. Several weeks before this perfectly natural-looking inter-generational conversation took place, Mrs Smith had passed away.
That she was still able to talk to her relatives is all thanks to new technology that harnesses the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to bring the dead back from beyond the grave in a virtual form.
Dubbed ‘grief tech’ or ‘digital necromancy’, a growing number of start-ups are offering services that promise to keep the memories of lost loved ones alive for ever.
New technology is able to harness the power of artificial intelligence ( AI ) to bring the dead back from beyond the grave in a virtual form
Some, such as that used by Mrs Smith, are based on pre-recorded videos with the subject. Relatives can then ask questions of them, with an AI interface seamlessly and instantly selecting the appropriate response depending on what has been asked.
Though Mrs Smith spoke via a video screen, others using the same technology have re-appeared as talking, moving holograms.
Such is the speed of change powered by the AI revolution that what was once the stuff of science fiction has now become reality.
Indeed it was only a decade ago that an episode of the dystopian drama Black Mirror featured a plot in which a young woman named Martha turns to AI to recreate a digital version of her boyfriend Ash after he is killed in a car accident.
This is done using all of his past online communications and social media profiles, culminating in the creation of an Ash-like android. While that final step is still some way off, life is already imitating art.
By learning from video footage, photographs and other material such as social media posts and text messages, AI can recreate a version of an individual that looks, speaks or interacts like the real person. The range of grief tech ranges from simple chatbots to sophisticated avatars that imitate the look and sound of the deceased.
After your parents pass away, you can meet them in the cloud through AI technology, to alleviate the pain of the death of your loved ones,’ promises one South Korean company that has already ‘reunited’ a number of bereaved individuals with ultra-realistic video-generated version of their loved ones. ‘Let us use AI to remember our parents’ smiling faces and their warm voices for ever.
‘Live in the cloud through AI, live in the hearts of loved ones.’
Fine in theory but in real-life the roll-out of grief tech is raising ethical questions and dividing opinion. Those who have taken advantage of these new services say they offer a valuable way to preserve and pass on memories and details of lives that otherwise would be forgotten. They also say they can provide comfort to those using them in much the same way that flicking through a photo album or watching a home video would do.
But among the concerns about the new technology is the worry that in order to maximise profits the tech companies will make their offerings as ‘addictive’ as possible, so that grieving relatives can be charged again and again to see their dead loved ones, rather than simply paying a flat fee.
There are also warnings that the realism of the avatars may make it harder for the bereaved to come to terms with their loss, particularly when younger people are involved.
Suzy Turner Jones, the director of clinical services at Grief Encounter, a charity that supports bereaved children and young people, says much more research needs to be done before their impact can be properly understood. ‘Is this going to prolong despair, or create comfort?’ she asks. ‘Is it going to be enabling in terms of understanding following someone’s death, or cause confusion?
‘At Grief Encounter we ensure that after the death of someone close, language, for example, is clear and concise – that the person is no longer alive and not coming back. AI presents a new set of challenges that could affect this. Memories are something to be treasured, and perhaps not to be re-invented in such a visceral way.’
In 2020, a South Korean documentary called Meeting You featured a mourning mother who had lost her seven-year-old daughter to an incurable disease. The girl had died just a week after being diagnosed in 2016, and her mum did not have a chance to say goodbye.
The producers of the documentary crafted a digitised re-creation of the child that the mother was able to see through a virtual-reality headset. On the show, the virtual girl ran towards her, calling, ‘Mom.’ Breaking into tears, she replied: ‘Mom missed you so much.’ Elements of that technology are now being harnessed for everyday use – requiring nothing more sophisticated than a smartphone and a willingness to talk.
For example, users of the app HereAfter AI, are encouraged by a virtual interviewer to record themselves talking about different aspects of their lives.
Those audio recordings are organised to create what it calls a Life Story Avatar, a representation of the user that lives on in digital form and can then respond to questions from loved ones.
Packages, linked to usage, cost up to £6.40 a month.
Another service, StoryFile, is centred on video. It is the brainchild of Stephen Smith, whose mother Marina is among those to have recorded their recollections, memories and key life moments.
The roll-out of grief tech raises several ethical questions. While some say the new services help to provide comfort and preserve memories, others are concerned it could be abused for commercial gain (file photo)
In January 2022 she was filmed by her son over a two-day period, answering more than 100 questions ‘I learnt things about her and her interests that I didn’t even know about,’ says Mr Smith, who grew up in Nottinghamshire and now lives in Los Angeles.
Using the material, he then created what he calls a ‘conversational AI video’ of her. While all the answers came from his mother, the AI element of the process analyses what she has said and then ‘listens’ to questions before instantly providing the appropriate video response.
It meant that when Mrs Smith, who was made an MBE in 2005 for her work for Holocaust remembrance, died in June 2022, she was even able to feature at her own funeral, responding to questions on a TV screen.
‘Mum answered questions from grieving relatives after they had watched her cremation,’ Mr Smith said. ‘Relatives were staggered by my mum’s new honesty at her funeral. She had been too embarrassed to reveal her true childhood. A question about it suddenly had her revealing her childhood in India that we knew nothing about.’ A few weeks later, Mrs Smith’s grandchildren also asked to ‘talk to grandma’.
‘It was quite a moving experience, I have to say, because obviously they love grandma a great deal but it wasn’t emotional in the sense they were sobbing about their loss, now it was more about their curiosity,’ he told The Mail on Sunday.
‘They were learning things about her that they didn’t think to ask when she was still alive.’ And he adds: ‘This is not a tool designed for death, it is a tool designed to document life, much like you would with a photograph album.’
The most basic StoryFile package costs from £40 and involves recording video on your phone, with more sophisticated options costing up to £400. At the top end, the technology exists to preserve the individual as an interactive hologram – but is not yet available to the public.
Another advocate of using tech to remember a loved one is Tracy McInerney. She lost her 56-year-old mother Mary to breast cancer in 2006. In the wake of her loss, she drew solace listening to her mum’s voice on a voicemail message. But two years later she lost access to the messaging service, leaving her devastated. ‘It felt like losing her once again,’ says the 52-year-old, who splits her time between London and Ireland.
‘It was truly gone this time and there was no way to hear her voice ever again. As the years trudged on, the memory and the sound of her voice started to fade.’
Then, in 2019, her aunt gave her a Christmas present – a compact-disc recording she had made of Mary when she appeared on a local radio station. ‘It was the first time I had heard her voice in 12 years and it was such a lovely gift and I thought it would be so lovely if I had more of that, more of her voice,’ she said.
An app called Autumn Whispers allows people to leave a digital time-capsule for their loved ones (file photo)
From that thought was born the idea for Autumn Whispers, an app that allows people to leave a digital time-capsule for their loved ones. Using their smartphone they can record their own thoughts and memories, combined with photos and videos, and create a package that can be downloaded by others when they have gone.
‘Doing research I realised that people may be more comfortable talking but are not always great about going on video,’ she says. ‘So you record as you go and then you curate that material as well. You can go back over it and edit it and leave different folders for different family members if you want.’
All the data is encrypted and saved securely on the cloud, with a relative or friend assigned as a ‘guardian’ to access it when the person has passed away.
The app is due to launch next spring and Ms McInerney believes that it will aid rather than hinder the grieving process.
‘When you lose a parent you kind of think about them every day anyway, regardless of whether you have a recording of them or a photo,’ she says. ‘If I look at a photo of them I don’t go, ‘Oh my God, I’m going back in a grief cycle…’ For me having my mum’s voice was a comfort. There obviously is some bitter-sweetness, but for me it was a comfort.’
It is a point echoed by Professor Michael Mair, of Liverpool University’s department of sociology, who argues the new generation of AI tools appeal ‘because they chime with things we do anyway’.
‘If you think about religious artefacts or statues of political leaders, the dead are among us in all sort of ways and the photograph was probably a much bigger innovation,’ he says. ‘I have photos of my father who passed away in 2019 downstairs which I look at every day, as many people do. Have I failed in the grieving process because I keep these artefacts? Should we be deleting all of our videos? Who is in a position to say that?’
We do not, he adds, treat videos and messages from loved ones as if those records themselves were our loved ones.
‘Instead, we use them as conduits to their memory, standing in for them as proxies for us to think of or communicate through,’ he adds. ‘To suggest we routinely get confused or delude ourselves about such media is a misconception.’
Some have warned that the cutting-edge technology could change the way our brains process death and disrupt our ability to adapt to loss
But others have warned that the new technology could change how our brains process death. According to American psychologist Mary-Frances O’Connor there are concerns that grief tech may be capable of reinforcing and prolonging an attachment to the deceased that could disrupt the usual process of adapting to loss.
‘It’s one thing to have a photograph and to clearly understand that was the past,’ she recently told the New Scientist. ‘It’s another thing to have an avatar or a hologram or a chatbot that appears to be interacting with you in the present moment . . . you feel like you’re trying to get closer to that relationship, but [the bot] is not the thing that you want.’
The lines that separate the living and the dead are already being obscured. We cannot know how we will handle our grief once the urge to keep our loved ones around becomes too much to resist.
And what of the ‘living memories’ themselves? Will they remain stuck in the hard-set past as the years go by — or will they still be able to learn and have new experiences? That’s a question that places us on the edge of eternity.
What seems almost certain is that once this rapidly developing technology reaches its unnatural conclusion, we will find ourselves living alongside AI-generated ghosts barely distinguishable from our loved ones – as long as we carry on paying the bills to keep them around.
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