Artificial intelligence brings back deceased digitally in China: a second chance to say goodbye

Thanks to artificial intelligence (AI), people are getting a chance to say “goodbye” to their deceased loved ones one last time, Business Insider reports.

Chinese software engineer Yu Jialin came across a paper on lip-syncing technology in 2020. The principle is relatively simple – a computer program synchronizes lip movements with voice recordings. This gave him the idea to resurrect his grandfather, who died nearly a decade ago.

The question, “Could I see my grandfather again with the help of this technology?” led to an elaborate project documented by investigative journalist Tang Yucheng for the state-run Sixth Tone magazine. It is one of several stories emerging from China in which people are using AI to virtually bring their deceased back to life.

Using various emerging AI technologies, people in China have created chat programs known as “griefbots.” They build on personalities and memories of the deceased, offering survivors a chance to communicate with their loved ones once again.

For Yu Jialin, this provided an opportunity to share one last time with his grandfather, who stood by his side throughout his childhood. The software engineer, now 29, told Tang that he still regrets two incidents in which he treated his grandfather harshly – once for interrupting his video game and once for wanting his grandfather to stop picking him up from school.

After his grandfather died, his family hardly talked about him. “Everyone in the family tried not to remember the grandfather rather than remembering him,” Yu said.

The Griefbot technology has benefited from the general enthusiasm for ChatGPT, and has been able to develop greatly in recent years. The technology is now predominantly used to mimic human behavior through memorization, photos and recordings. With the rapid advancement of generative AI, the performance and accessibility of griefbots has increased tremendously.

Earlier models required enormous amounts of data. Today, however, laypeople or individual engineers like Yu can use a few fragments of information from a person’s past to create language models that almost exactly reflect how that person looked, spoke, and thought.

“With today’s technology, an AI doesn’t need many examples to learn a person’s style,” says Haibing Lu, professor of information and analytics at Santa Clara University. “You just need to customize the system a little bit to get a 99% similarity to your desired person. The strong differences will be minimal,” Lu adds.

To imprint his AI model on his grandfather’s personality, Yu collected a variety of old letters from his grandmother that she had exchanged with Yu’s grandfather when they were young. They revealed aspects of the man that Yu had never seen as a child.

In addition, the software engineer found photos and videos that were more than ten years old, as well as text messages his grandfather had sent him. By giving the AI more information about his grandfather, Yu was able to provide an increasingly accurate representation of the man’s habits and preferences. For example, the AI remembered his grandfather’s favorite TV show.

When Yu told the AI that the show “Happy Teahouse” was no longer on the air, the griefbot replied, “That’s too bad. The show I wanted to watch the most is no longer available. I would have liked to watch a few more episodes.”

At that moment, Yu felt he had reached an important step. The program was finally mature enough for Yu to show his grandmother his work. She watched in silence as her deceased husband responded to her questions, thanked her grandson, stood up and left the room.

The use of AI to “awaken” the deceased represents a new way to manage the grieving process and offers people a chance to say goodbye to their loved ones one last time. Despite all the ethical questions this technology raises, it can still be seen as a significant advance in AI technology and has the potential to fundamentally change the way we deal with loss.

While this new application of AI can be impressive and comforting, we should still proceed with caution. We must remember that these digital representations of the deceased are not the real people, but artificially created echoes based on past data. The griefbots can preserve and repeat memories, but they cannot grow or have new experiences. It is important to understand the limitations of this technology to avoid disappointment or emotional distress. We should also be aware of the ethical concerns that come with handling data and the ‘digital afterlife’ of the deceased. Above all, it is necessary to respect the privacy and dignity of the individuals depicted. Ultimately, technology can be a helpful tool in the grieving process if used responsibly and sensitively.

Alexander Pinker
Alexander Pinker
Alexander Pinker is an innovation profiler, future strategist and media expert who helps companies understand the opportunities behind technologies such as artificial intelligence for the next five to ten years. He is the founder of the consulting firm "Alexander Pinker - Innovation Profiling", the innovation marketing agency "innovate! communication" and the news platform "Medialist Innovation". He is also the author of three books and a lecturer at the Technical University of Würzburg-Schweinfurt.

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