For anyone who has ever suffered a loss, Microsoft could have an incredible solution — but it’s a controversial one. The US Department of Commerce recently granted the tech giant a patent permitting the manufacture of a chatbot based on a deceased person’s information, including “images, voice data, social media posts [and] electronic messages.” If Microsoft goes ahead with the idea, it would create AI versions of humans, possibly accompanied by digital representations of their face or body.
We already have access to the technology needed to make this happen. And we’ve seen AI used to bring the dead back to life before, in both sci-fi and reality. The most recent example is the DeepNostalgia app, which brings to life old family photos in just a few clicks. But would an artificial copy be so incredibly dark that it’s best confined to the realms of fantasy? Or is it fine to green-light a technological sequel to The Night of the Living Dead? I’m in two minds.
On one hand, the death of a person we love can cause unimaginable pain — pain we might wish to alleviate by any means possible. For many, the traditional methods of processing loss simply don’t work, and they find themselves caught in a distressing vacuum of grief. Why not, then, embrace technology and lean on cutting-edge innovations for help? Communicating with a digital rendering of the individual in question could fill the void left by their passing.
When you think about it, we already look to pictures, text chats, and video/audio content of deceased loved ones for comfort. And sometimes it does quell the sadness. With this in mind, could Microsoft’s plan take pain-relief to another level, transforming it from a one-way effort, such as popping a pill, into a two-way experience, similar to a therapy session?
On the other hand, I can’t help but think it unhealthy to keep hold of somebody no longer with us. Isn’t it akin to storing them in a cupboard or on a shelf, as if they’re a mere object — a computer game or virtual reality headset — there in your home, real enough but not quite? Who wants a constant reminder of what they don’t have any more? It’s for this very reason that a lot of grieving folk don’t actually seek solace in images or footage, or ‘painful souvenirs’ as they’re often called — it’s purely too traumatic.
Various theories on the stages of grief exist, but the model put forward by psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross is one of the most commonly used. In this model, the five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I’d imagine possessing an AI reproduction of a dead spouse, child or parent would trap mourners in denial — or drag them back to denial after moving through or completing the subsequent stages. It could allow mourners to build a fictional world in which they pretend the deceased go on as mere shadows of the humans they were in life.
And we should remember that, just like humans, technology can be fragile. Imagine the mourner comes to care for the system as much as the loved one on which it’s based…and then it crashes, or anger and upset causes them to delete it. It’s not often we have to go through the torment of losing a loved one, but for it to happen twice could be devastating.
There’s definitely promise in this idea, and thanks to Microsoft for trying to help those in genuine pain. Although it’ll probably do just that, I’d guess this is a solution for the short-term only. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.