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Talk with your dead loved ones -- through a chatbot

HereAfter AI promises digital immortality, and it's not that weird.

hereafterai
HereAfter AI

James Vlahos lost his father to cancer in 2017, but still chats with him all the time. John tells his son stories about his childhood crush on the girl across the street and about Papa Demoskopoulos, the pet rabbit he had as a kid. He tells him about singing in Gilbert and Sullivan operas and becoming a lawyer. Sometimes he'll drop one of his signature insults: "Well, hot dribbling spit." 

The elder Vlahos talks with his child via a conversational chatbot called Dadbot his son created after his father was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. For months, Vlahos recorded his dying dad's life stories, then turned them into an interactive AI that speaks in his father's voice.    

Dadbot "was a transformational experience for me because it gave me great solace. It gave my family great solace," says Vlahos, a former tech journalist and author of Talk To Me, a book on conversational AI. "It didn't replace my dad, but it gave us this really rich way to remember him." 

Now Vlahos is bringing his Dadbot technology to HereAfter AI. The platform lets the dead live on as what Vlahos calls a "Life Story Avatar" that chats on demand, in the recorded voice of the deceased. Surviving loved ones interact with the customized voice avatar via smart speaker, mobile or desktop app, and it responds, through Alexa-like voice recognition technology, with prerecorded stories, memories, jokes, songs and even advice. HereAfter AI is one of a number of startups promising digital immortality through chatbots, AI and even holograms like these out of USC that let Holocaust survivors' stories live on. A project out of Japan envisions robots that look and act like the dead

If your mind just jumped straight to the Black Mirror episode Be Right Back, I'm there with you -- it's the first thing I thought of when I heard of HereAfter AI. In that episode of the British dystopian anthology series, a grieving young woman signs up for a service that creates an AI version of her dead boyfriend by aggregating his social media posts and other online communication. She interacts with the digital doppelganger over instant messages and the phone before upgrading her subscription to a physical android lookalike of her guy. That's when things get complex. And arguably creepy. 

Some people will no doubt be uneasy with the prospect of communicating with virtual versions of their dead family and friends. I expected to be at least a little weirded out watching a demo of HereAfter AI, but it felt heartwarming rather than chilling, kind of like chatting with Siri, if Siri were a medium communicating with the other side.

For one thing, you have to sign up to become a Life Story Avatar, and actively participate. You fire up the app, and an automated chatbot interviewer asks you questions about your life, then records the spoken replies to capture your voice and memories and relay a sense of your personality. You can also upload photos to illustrate your words. 

Later, users who pay for access to your avatar can ask it questions that get answered in the recorded voice: What's your earliest memory? How did you meet mom? What's a time when you felt really proud? Recording your stories is free, but plans for sharing the avatars with family members and friends start at $49 a year (about £37, AU$68). Users also have the option to download their full audio recordings for $95, or roughly £72/$AU134.

"While HereAfter AI does store the recordings that have been made, we do not distribute or monetize them in any alternate way, such as data mining for advertising," Vlahos says. 

Think of it like a life story recording app with conversation folded in, though Vlahos acknowledges that "conversation" may be stretching it. 

"Conversational AI tech is in its infancy," Vlahos says, adding that he wants future versions of the automated interviewer to be better at understanding the nuances of conversation. "But it has the basic bare bones of a give and take rather than only one way." 

Interacting with the dead aside, the service also offers a way to organize memories.  

Watching the demo, I thought of a cassette tape my dad recorded decades ago of his mom, my grandma, talking about her childhood in Minsk, Russia. Had Grandma been around when HereAfter AI was created, the stories recorded on that battered old tape could have been neatly cataloged and easily accessed by subject matter.  

I could also have easy access to recordings of my late dad's voice beyond the two birthday voicemails I've saved on my phone but haven't yet had the strength of heart to listen to more than three years after his death. I suspect there will come a time when hearing Dad's warm throaty laugh again will feel more soothing than sad.    

"To be able to hear my dad's voice when I want to... that is comforting to me," Vlahos says. "It makes him more present to me than he otherwise would be."  

jamesanddad

James Vlahos and his dad, John, who died of cancer in 2017 but still shares his life stories via a conversational chatbot. 

James Vlahos

Amanda Lambros, a grief recovery specialist in Australia who's not affiliated with HereAfter AI, calls the service a "great initiative, something that people can reach out to while grieving and beyond."  

One drawback, Ambros adds, might be discovering information that wasn't communicated while the person was alive, which could lead to confusion and resentment. 

At the time of this writing, HereAfter AI has several hundred users, according to Vlahos. One of them, Smita Shah, signed up for the service to preserve the many colorful stories she's heard from her dad, 92, and her mom, 86. Shah is already tapping HereAfter AI to "chat" with her parents when they're not available to talk in real time. 

"They live in India and I am in Canada, so with the time difference I can still talk to them anytime and hope the next generation will remember their humble roots," Shah said.    

HereAfter AI doesn't promise to mitigate grief or replace loved ones who are gone. But it can, Vlaho says, connect the dead both to those who miss them, and to those who've never met them. 

"One of the fears of death is that the person slips away, that the memories slip away, that it all becomes faded and sepia-toned and vague," Vlahis says. "This type of legacy AI technology doesn't ease the sting of death, but what it does do is provide this much more rich, vivid and interactive way to remember."