The man who turned his dead father into a chatbot – BBC News

  • By Egon Cossou
  • Business reporter

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption, James Vlahos’ business idea came from a desire to spend time with his dying father

In 2016, James Vlahos received terrible news: his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

“I loved my dad, I was losing my dad,” said James, who lives in Oakland, California.

He was determined to make the most of the remaining time he had with his father. “I did an oral history project with him, spending hours and hours and hours audio recording his life story.”

This coincided with a time when James was beginning to explore a career in AI, so his project quickly evolved.

“I thought, God, what if I could make this something interactive?” he says. “For a way to preserve his memories more richly, and a sense of his personality, which was so wonderful, to keep track of that.”

James’ father John passed away in 2017, but not before James turned what he had recorded into an AI-powered chatbot that could answer questions about his father’s life – in his father’s voice.

Image source, James Vlahos

Image caption, James Vlahos spent hours recording the memories of his father John

Such use of AI to artificially revive humans has long been explored in science fiction, but developments in AI technology have now made it possible in real life. In 2019, James turned his chatbot into an app and company called HereafterAI, which allows users to do the same for their loved ones.

He adds that while the chatbot hasn’t taken away the pain of his father’s death, it does give him “more than I would have otherwise.” ‘It is not he who retreats into this very vague memory. I have a wonderful interactive compendium that I can go to.’

While HearafterAI users can upload photos of their loved one so that they appear on their smartphone or computer screen when they use the app, another company turning people into AI chatbots is going much further.

South Korea’s DeepBrain AI creates a video-based avatar of a person by recording hours of video and audio to capture their face, voice and mannerisms.

“We clone the person’s likeness to 96.5% of the original person’s likeness,” said Michael Jung, chief financial officer of DeepBrain. “So usually the family doesn’t feel uncomfortable talking to the deceased relative, even if it is an AI avatar.”

The company believes such technology can be an important part of developing a ‘dying well’ culture – where we prepare for our deaths in advance, leaving behind family histories, stories and memories as a form of ‘living legacy’.

However, the process is not cheap and users cannot create the avatar themselves. Instead, they must pay the company up to $50,000 (£39,000) for the filming process and creation of their avatar.

Despite these high costs, some investors are confident it will be popular, and DeepBrain has raised $44 million in its latest funding round.

Still, psychologist Laverne Antrobus says great caution should be exercised when using such “grief technology” during times of heightened emotions.

“Loss is something that catches us,” she says. “You can think you’re almost okay, but then something can set you right back.

“The idea that you would then have the opportunity to hear their voice and hear their words spoken through them could be quite daunting.”

Ms. Antrobus adds that people should not rush to use a chatbot from a lost loved one. “You have to feel pretty solid before using something like this.” Do it very, very slowly.’

Image source, Deep brain AI

Image caption, A woman touching the avatar of an elderly relative, created by Korean company Deepbrain AI

The way we grieve is specific to each of us, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t shared experiences.

Administrative hassle is one of them. Banks, companies and social media sites that your loved one has used will require you to complete a slew of paperwork to close accounts and end direct debits, subscriptions and the like.

“I looked at more than 20 companies and had to call them all to tell them about my loss,” says Eleanor Wood, 41, from South Devon. Her husband Stephen died in March last year after a serious illness.

“Some companies were great and straightforward. Some were downright incompetent and insensitive. They created more stress and emotional distress at a time when I was already at the lowest possible emotional level.”

To reduce the administrative burden on the recently bereaved, Settld is a UK online platform that contacts private sector organizations on their behalf.

The user uploads the required paperwork and the list of everyone to be contacted. Settld then automatically writes and sends the emails. You can then log in again to check whether the companies in question have responded and whether the issues have been resolved.

It works with 1,400 entities, ranging from banks to social media companies and utilities. It was co-founded by Vicky Wilson in 2020 after the death of her grandmother.

“The more we can do to use technology to reduce administrative burdens, the better,” she says. When someone dies, we are looking at around 300 hours for 146 tasks to handle the average estate.

“It normally takes about nine months to complete. We think about 70% of that work can and should be automated.”

Image caption, Vicky Wilson got the idea for Settld after the death of her grandmother

This growth was fueled by the coronavirus pandemic, says David Soffer, editor-in-chief.

“What Covid did was remind people of the importance of life,” he says, emphasizing that it has helped break some of the taboos around talking about death. This in turn led to our increasing acceptance of technology as part of the grieving process.

“Being able to notify many people at once and remind people through voice recordings or visual messages is all important,” he says.

But Mr. Soffer believes the trend has an even deeper meaning. “If technology evolves to solve technological problems, that’s good,” he says. “But if it helps solve non-technological problems, such as the grieving process, that is the real purpose of technology.”

Still, Ms. Antrobus warns that there is no substitute for human support when it comes to overcoming grief. “I can’t quite imagine a place where technology can take over the more traditional aspects of grief, like the feeling of being close to people, the feeling of being cared for, the feeling of being appreciated.”

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