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James Vlahos Turns Late Father’s Recordings Into AI Chatbox

Artificial Intelligence will provide us with one surprise – hopefully mainly good ones – after another far into the future, but for some people, especially writers and readers of science fiction, some of the news will be old news. Egon Cossou of the BBC has recently written about James Vlahos – The National Herald did so several years ago – who turned recordings of his father “into an AI-powered chatbot that could answer questions about his dad’s life – in his father’s voice.”

The article notes that “such use of AI to artificially bring people back to life has long been explored in science fiction, but developments in AI technology have now made it possible in real life.”

Cossou writes that “Vlahos’ business idea was born from wanting to spend time with his dying father… Back in 2016, James Vlahos, who lives in Oakland, CA, received some terrible news – his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer” and “he was determined to make the most of the remaining time he had with his father.”

“I loved my dad, I was losing my dad… I did an oral history project with him, where I just spent hours, and hours, and hours just audio recording his life story.”

At the time James was looking into a career in AI.

“I thought, gosh, what if I could make something interactive out of this… For a way to more richly keep his memories, and some sense of his personality, which was so wonderful, to keep that around.”

According to the BBC, “in 2019, James turned his chatbot into an app and business called HereafterAI – he is a cofounder – which allows users to do the same for their loved ones. He adds that while the chatbot didn’t remove the pain of his dad’s death, it does gives him “more than I otherwise would have… It’s not him retreating into this very fuzzy memory. I have this wonderful interactive compendium I can turn to.”

The platform enables users can “upload photos of their loved one, to appear on the screen of their smart phone or computer when they use the app,” but “another firm that turns people into AI chatbots goes much further,” Cossou writes, noting that “South Korea’s DeepBrain AI creates a video-based avatar of a person, by shooting hours of video and audio to capture their face, voice and mannerisms.”

“We are cloning the person’s likeness to 96.5% of the similarity of the original person,” says Michael Jung, DeepBrain’s chief financial officer. “So mostly the family don’t feel uncomfortable talking with the deceased family member, even though it is an AI avatar.”

Users have to pay the firm up to $50,000 for the filming and creation of their avatar.

While “the company believes such technology can be an important part of developing a ‘well dying’ culture – where we prepare for our death in advance, leaving family histories, stories and memories as a form of ‘living legacy’ Cossou says, he reports that “psychologist Laverne Antrobus says that great care should be taken when using such ‘grief tech’ at times of heightened emotion.”

She says that “loss is something that catches us out… You can think you’re pretty much close to being OK, then something can take you right back. The idea that you might then have the opportunity to hear their voice, and hear their words spoken through them, might be quite discombobulating… You’d have to feel quite solid before using something like this. Take things very, very slowly.”

“The grief tech sector, also called ‘death tech’, is now valued at more than £100bn globally, according to tech news website TechRound. This growth was fuelled by the coronavirus pandemic, says David Soffer, its editor-in-chief,” according to the BBC.

So, people are hearing cash registers ringing but “Antrobus cautions that there remains no substitute for human support when it comes to overcoming grief,” the article concludes. “I can’t quite envisage a place for technology to take over the more traditional aspects of grieving, which are around feeling close to people, feeling cared for, feeling appreciated,” Antrobus warns.

(Material from the BBC was used in this report)

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