NEW YORK – Greek-American writer James Vlahos recently wrote an emotional article for Wired which detailed his reaction to learning that his father was terminally ill with lung cancer and the efforts to keep his father’s memory alive using the available technology.
Realizing time was limited, Vlahos recorded conversations with his dad John James Vlahos on everything from family history to songs from his alma mater. The resulting tapes, 91,970 words, were then transcribed professionally and filled 203 single-spaced pages which Vlahos clipped into black binders, placing the volumes on a shelf. The story does not end there however.
“But by the time I put that tome on the shelf, my ambitions have already moved beyond it. A bigger plan has been taking shape in my head. I think I have found a better way to keep my father alive,” Vlahos wrote in Wired.
Always fascinated by computers that could talk, Vlahos recalls in the article, “It’s 1982, and I’m 11 years old, sitting at a Commodore PET computer terminal in the atrium of a science museum near my house. Whenever I come here, I beeline for this machine. The computer is set up to run a program called Eliza—an early chatbot created by MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum in the mid-1960s. Designed to mimic a psychotherapist, the bot is surprisingly mesmerizing.
“What I don’t know, sitting there glued to the screen, is that Weizenbaum himself took a dim view of his creation. He regarded Eliza as little more than a parlor trick (she is one of those therapists who mainly just echoes your own thoughts back to you), and he was appalled by how easily people were taken in by the illusion of sentience. ‘What I had not realized,’ he wrote, ‘is that extremely short exposures to a relatively simple computer program could induce powerful delusional thinking in quite normal people.’
“At age 11, I am one of those people. Eliza astounds me with responses that seem genuinely perceptive (‘Why do you feel sad?’) and entertains me with replies that obviously aren’t (‘Do you enjoy feeling sad?’). Behind that glowing green screen, a fledgling being is alive. I’m hooked.”
In 2015, Vlahos wrote an article for the New York Times about the updated Barbie doll that could talk. Hello Barbie, “‘speaks’ via a prewritten branching script, and she ‘listens’ via a program of pattern-matching and natural-language processing. But where Eliza’s script was written by a single dour German computer scientist, Barbie’s script has been concocted by a whole team of people from Mattel and PullString, a computer conversation company founded by alums of Pixar. And where Eliza’s natural-language processing abilities were crude at best, Barbie’s powers rest on vast recent advances in machine learning, voice recognition, and processing power. Plus Barbie—like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and other products in the ‘conversational computing’ boom—can actually speak out loud in a voice that sounds human.”
Keeping in touch with PullString, Vlahos noted that “the company’s CEO Oren Jacob, a former chief technology officer at Pixar, tells me that PullString’s ambitions are not limited to entertainment. ‘I want to create technology that allows people to have conversations with characters who don’t exist in the physical world—because they’re fictional, like Buzz Lightyear,’ he says, ‘or because they’re dead, like Martin Luther King.’”
Vlahos writes, “My father receives his cancer diagnosis on April 24, 2016. A few days later, by happenstance, I find out that PullString is planning to publicly release its software for creating conversational agents. Soon anybody will be able to access the same tool that PullString has used to create its talking characters. The idea pops into my mind almost immediately. For weeks, amid my dad’s barrage of doctor’s appointments, medical tests, and treatments, I keep the notion to myself. I dream of creating a Dadbot—a chatbot that emulates not a children’s toy but the very real man who is my father. And I have already begun gathering the raw material: those 91,970 words that are destined for my bookshelf.”
He continues, “If even a hint of a digital afterlife is possible, then of course the person I want to make immortal is my father. This is my dad: John James Vlahos, born January 4, 1936. Raised by Greek immigrants, Dimitrios and Eleni Vlahos, in Tracy, CA, and later in Oakland. Phi Beta Kappa graduate (economics) from UC Berkeley; sports editor of The Daily Californian. Managing partner of a major law firm in San Francisco. Long-suffering Cal sports fan. As an announcer in the press box at Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium, he attended all but seven home football games between 1948 and 2015. A Gilbert and Sullivan fanatic, he has starred in shows like H.M.S. Pinafore and was president of the Lamplighters, a light-opera theater company, for 35 years. My dad is interested in everything from languages (fluent in English and Greek, decent in Spanish and Italian) to architecture (volunteer tour guide in San Francisco). He’s a grammar nerd. Joke teller. Selfless husband and father.”
At first, Dadbot conversed in text messages only, then voice recordings could be added and though John James Vlahos passed away on February 9, 2017, his son’s efforts and technology have allowed him to continue having conversations with his family about everyday things, his parents’ lives in Greece, his mother who was born in the village of Kehries on the island of Evia and orphaned at the age of 3, among them.
In his article, Vlahos noted the strangeness of interacting with the Dadbot, but his son seems to have taken to it easily. “Back in the fall of 2016, my son Zeke tried out an early version of the Dadbot. A 7-year-old, he grasped the essential concept faster than adults typically do. ‘This is like talking to Siri,’ he said. He played with the Dadbot for a few minutes, then went off to dinner, seemingly unimpressed. In the following months Zeke was often with us when we visited my dad. Zeke cried the morning his Papou died. But he was back to playing Pokemon with his usual relish by the afternoon. I couldn’t tell how much he was affected. Now, several weeks after my dad has passed away, Zeke surprises me by asking, ‘Can we talk to the chatbot?’ Confused, I wonder if Zeke wants to hurl elementary school insults at Siri, a favorite pastime of his when he can snatch my phone. ‘Uh, which chatbot?’ I warily ask. ‘Oh, Dad,’ he says. ‘The Papou one, of course.’ So I hand him the phone.”
The full article is available in the August issue of Wired.