Saturday, December 3, 2022

Technology that lets us speak to our dead relatives has arrived. Are we ready?

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Scripted bits like this sounded stilted and strange, but as we moved on, with my mother recounting memories and speaking in her own words, “she” sounded far more relaxed and natural. 

Still, this conversation and the ones that followed were limited—when I tried asking my mum’s bot about her favorite jewelry, for instance, I got: “Sorry, I didn’t understand that. You can try asking another way, or move onto another topic.”

There were also mistakes that were jarring to the point of hilarity. One day, Dad’s bot asked me how I was. I replied, “I’m feeling sad today.” He responded with a cheery, upbeat “Good!”

The overall experience was undeniably weird. Every time I spoke to their virtual versions, it struck me that I could have been talking to my real parents instead. On one occasion, my husband mistook my testing out the bots for an actual phone call. When he realized it wasn’t, he rolled his eyes, tutted, and shook his head, as if I were completely deranged. 

Earlier this year, I got a demo of a similar technology from a five-year-old startup called StoryFile, which promises to take things to the next level. Its Life service records responses on video rather than just voice alone. 

You can pick from hundreds of questions for the subject. Then you record the person answering the questions; this can be done on any device with a camera and a microphone, including a smartphone, though the higher-quality the recording, the better the outcome. After uploading the files, the company turns them into a digital version of the person you can see and speak to. It can only answer the questions it’s been programmed to answer—much like HereAfter, just with video.

StoryFile’s CEO, Stephen Smith, demonstrated the technology on a video call, where we were joined by his mother. She died earlier this year, but here she was on the call, sitting in a comfortable chair in her living room. For a brief time, I could only see her, shared via Smith’s screen. She was soft-spoken, with wispy hair and friendly eyes. She dispensed life advice. She seemed wise. 

Smith told me that his mother “attended” her own funeral: “At the end she said, ‘I guess that’s it from me … goodbye!’ and everyone burst into tears.” He told me her digital participation was well received by family and friends. And, arguably most important of all, Smith said he’s deeply comforted by the fact that he managed to capture his mother on camera before she passed away.  



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