Can AI ‘bring back’ the dead? Debating the use of tech in the grieving process
Could artificial intelligence help us grieve lost loved ones by recreating their voices and likeness after death?
Tech experts and grief therapists are debating that idea after a suggestion that technology designed to emulate dead people could soon be available to the wider public sparked discussion and controversy on Twitter.
“Start regularly recording your parents, elders and loved ones,” U.S.-based computer scientist Pratik Desai tweeted on April 8, a post that has since been viewed more than 11 million times. “With enough transcript data, new voice synthesis and video models, there is a 100% chance that they will live with you forever after leaving physical body. This should be even possible by end of the year.”
A number of replies criticized Desai’s suggestion, with some calling it “unhealthy and dystopian.” Others pointed to an unsettling episode of the Netflix sci-fi series “Black Mirror,” in which a character communicates with AI-generated impressions of her dead boyfriend.
Desai later replied to the criticism, saying he watched the “Black Mirror” episode. “I get it now. It’s a very personal issue and I sincerely apologize for hurting anyone’s feeling,” he tweeted.
As AI becomes more integrated in our daily lives – with increasing popularity of chatbots as the most recent example — experts have mixed feelings about how tech could harm or benefit the grieving process.
IS IT POSSIBLE FOR SOMEONE TO LIVE ON WITH AI?
Richard Khoury, the president of the Canadian Artificial Intelligence Association (CAIAC) believes advancements in AI tech make impersonating dead people possible, but not entirely truthful.
“When it comes to recreating a real person…what will be missing is my memories, my ideas, my personality,” he told CTVNews.ca in an interview. “It’s not so much as an AI problem (but) a model documentation problem.”
Khoury says because AI needs to be trained by people and gathers data to inform its responses, the identical recreation of a loved one is near impossible.
Right now the most advanced AI tech is taking information from the internet before responding to users’ queries, which has raised concerns about misinformation since it is unable to determine between fact and fiction.
Start regularly recording your parents, elders and loved ones. With enough transcript data, new voice synthesis and video models, there is a 100% chance that they will live with you forever after leaving physical body. This should be even possible by end of the year.
— Pratik Desai (@chheplo) April 8, 2023
A person would have to document every single instance in their entire life so that the AI could accurately impersonate them.
But even then, “what we document and what we actually think are very different things,” Khoury said.
“There’s more to us than just our memories, or just our feelings relative to those memories,” he said.
At the moment, chatbots have limitations on how much context they can sort through. The background on a person’s life is too extensive for the technology right now, Khoury said.
“I’m not saying it wouldn’t be able to take that much context at some point in the future but that’s not around the corner,” he said.
AI can not “think” on its own, it only makes decisions based on input and training from another human. Due to this, Khoury says AI could only generate a superficial copy of a dead person.
“In my opinion, to turn to a digital copy of someone who you just lost and chat with them as if they were still there and reminisce about old times…It really doesn’t sound like healthy grieving behaviour,” Khoury said.
HOW WOULD AI IMPACT THE GRIEVING PROCESS
Andrea Warnick, a registered grief therapist based in Guelph, Ont., echoes hesitations about allowing AI into a process that is very personal and delicate.
The grief process is not linear and is very individual, she told CTVNews.ca in an interview.
“A lot of my work with people is actually encouraging them to get out of their heads and sort of surrender into the process, and that it’s messy and it’s unpredictable,” she said.
In Warnick’s practice, she often sees what she calls ‘the six Rs’ of mourning, and encourages as a healthy pathway through grief and loss.
It starts with someone recognizing the loss, reacting to the separation, recollecting the experience, relinquishing old attachments, readjusting to a new world without the person and reinvesting their emotional energy, according to the research by Dr. Therese Rando, a U.S. grief therapist.
“In those early days, there’s quite a wide range but there tends to be a lot of shock, whether it’s that a diagnosis has just happened or a death has just happened,” Warnick said. “Then as that shock starts to wear off, the feeling components can get a lot bigger.”
Her practice of 30 grief therapists offers counselling to all people grieving the loss of someone or coming to terms with their own anticipated death. Some of the techniques used to help that grieving process could be amplified by AI technology, Warnick said, but she is still not sure.
“I’m equally fascinated and terrified by AI in general,” she said. “On some levels, I feel a bit wary about what this could actually mean. I find that already we’re living in a pretty death-phobic, grief-illiterate society.
“It’s not unusual that even in health care people won’t even use the language of death and dying, it’s just shrouded in euphemisms,” she said.
Throwing AI chatbots or avatars into the mix could lead to some mourners having unhealthy coping mechanisms or avoiding the reality of loss altogether, she said.
“I feel as though that could really feed into this ‘I’m not going to grieve, I’m going to continue to connect with the person.’”
But on the flip side, Warnick said if the technology is used “skillfully,” it could really accentuate practices in therapy.
One of the techniques used in counselling is an exercise where the person writes a two-way letter, one as themselves and the other as the dead person responding.
Warnick said this could be an opportunity for an AI chatbot to move the process along.
“Some people are really open to the idea that their person can still hear and feel and be a recipient of what they put out there,” she said.
For a person who is dying, Warnick said AI could serve as a memory technique that could compile a person’s images and messages for years to come.
“I think that absolutely, that there’s potential there for sure but what we’d want to make sure is that it’s not actually inadvertently creating barriers to a healthy grief process for the people who are grieving them,” she said.
For now, AI has the potential to become a part of a person’s grief process, but Warnick said if the tech helps people practice grief, it would be beneficial since for her it’s difficult to get people to even start.
“I think it’d be very interesting to see where things go with this,” she said. “The hardest part about being a grief therapist is convincing people that there’s a utility to do grief…So I spend a lot of time actually encouraging people to understand that in the big picture, it’s going to serve them much better to actually do their grief.”
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