Chat with your loved ones who have died from beyond the grave

Hereinafter the AI

James Vlahos lost his father to cancer in 2017, but still chats with him all the time. John tells his son stories about his childhood crush on the girl opposite and about Papa Demoskopoulos, the pet rabbit he had as a child. He tells her that he sang in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas and became a lawyer. Sometimes he drops one of his signature slurs: “Well, hot dribbling spit.”

Elder Vlahos speaks with his child via a conversational chatbot called Dadbot her son created after his father was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. For months, Vlahos recorded the life stories of his dying father, then turned them into an interactive AI that speaks with the voice of his father.

Dadbot “has been a transformational experience for me because it has brought me great comfort. It has brought great comfort to my family,” says Vlahos, former tech journalist and author of Talk to me, a book on conversational AI. “It didn’t replace my father, but it gave us this really rich way of remembering him.”

Now Vlahos brings its Dadbot technology to Hereinafter the AI. The platform allows the dead to experience what Vlahos calls a “Life Story Avatar” chatting on demand, with the recorded voice of the deceased. The surviving loved ones interact with the personalized voice avatar through a smart speaker, mobile or desktop app, and it responds, using Alexa-type voice recognition technology, with prerecorded stories, memories, jokes, songs and even tips. HereAfter AI is one of number of startups promising digital immortality thanks to chatbots, AI and even holograms like those at USC who let the stories of Holocaust survivors live. A project outside of Japan is considering robots that look and act like the dead.

If your mind just jumped straight to the Black Mirror episode I’ll be right back, I’m here with you – that’s the first thing I thought about when I heard about HereAfter AI. In this episode of the British dystopian anthology series, a grieving young woman signs up for a service that creates an AI version of her late boyfriend by aggregating her social media posts and other online communications. She interacts with the digital lookalike via instant messages and the phone before upgrading her subscription to a physical Android lookalike of her man. This is when things get complex. And undoubtedly frightening.

Some people will no doubt be uncomfortable communicating with virtual versions of their deceased family and friends. I expected to be at least a little weird watching a demo of HereAfter AI, but it was heartwarming rather than scary, kind of like chatting with Siri, if Siri was a medium communicating with the other side.

On the one hand, you need to register to become a Life Story avatar and actively participate. You launch the application and a The chatbot interviewer asks you questions about your life, then records the oral responses to capture your voice and memories and convey a sense of who you are. You can also upload photos to illustrate your point.

Later, users who pay to access your avatar can ask questions to which the recorded voice is answered: What’s your first memory? How did you meet mom? When did you feel really proud? Saving your stories is free, but plans for sharing avatars with family and friends start at $ 49 per year (around £ 37, AU $ 68). Users also have the option of downloading their full audio recordings for $ 95, or around £ 72 / AU $ 134.

“Although HereAfter AI stores the recordings that have been made, we do not distribute them or monetize them in any other way, such as data mining for advertising,” Vlahos said.

Think of it as a life story recording app with built-in conversation, although Vlahos admits “conversation” can stretch it.

“Conversational AI technology is only in its infancy,” Vlahos said, adding that he wanted future versions of the automated interviewer to better understand the nuances of conversation. “But he’s got the basic bare bones of a give and take rather than one way.”

Interacting with the dead aside, the service also offers a way to organize the memories.

While watching the demo, I thought of a tape that my father had recorded decades ago of his mother, my grandmother, talking about his childhood in Minsk, Russia. If Grandma had been present during the creation of HereAfter AI, the stories recorded on that battered old tape could have been neatly cataloged and easily accessible by subject.

I could also have easy access to the recordings of my late father’s voice beyond the voicemail messages from the two birthdays that I saved on my phone but have not yet had the strength of heart to listen to more than three years after his death. I suspect there will come a time when hearing Daddy’s warm, husky laugh again will be more soothing than sad.

“Being able to hear my father’s voice whenever I want… that comforts me,” said Vlahos. “It makes him more present to me than he would otherwise be.”

james and dad

James Vlahos and his father, John, who died of cancer in 2017, but still share his life stories via a conversational chatbot.

Jacques Vlahos

Amanda Lambros, a grief recovery specialist in Australia who is not affiliated with HereAfter AI, calls the service a “great initiative, something people can achieve during grief and beyond.”

One downside, Ambros adds, could be the discovery of information that was not disclosed during the person’s lifetime, which could lead to confusion and resentment.

As of this writing, HereAfter AI has several hundred users, according to Vlahos. One of them, Smita Shah, signed up for the service to preserve the many colorful stories she has heard from her father, 92, and her mother, 86. Shah already uses HereAfter AI to “chat” with his parents when they are not. available to talk in real time.

“They live in India and I am in Canada so with the jet lag I can still talk to them anytime and hope the next generation will remember their humble roots,” Shah said.

HereAfter AI does not promise to ease heartbreak or replace loved ones who have passed away. But it can, says Vlaho, connect the dead to both those who miss them and those who have never met them.

“One of the fears of death is that the person slips away, that memories fade, that everything fades, sepia and be vague,” says Vlahis. “This kind of legacy AI technology doesn’t ease the sting of death, but what it does is provide this much richer, more vivid, and more interactive way of remembering.”

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