This AI Brings Dead Family Members Back to Life, Kinda
Another episode of Black Mirror becomes a reality
There’s something oddly alluring about the idea of speaking to your relatives after you die. Now, for the first time, your family can actually talk to an AI version of you after you’re gone. It’s all possible because of an app named HereAfter, and you’re going to want to know about it.
In 2016, James Vlahos’ father was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Knowing they didn’t have much time together, James began recording an oral history with his father. In the recordings, his father recalls key memories like his first job, how he fell in love, and his career as a successful lawyer.
James later wrote about the first recording for WIRED:
All ninety-thousands words were then transcribed from the recordings and printed in a book with over 200 pages. But by the time James put the book on the shelf - his ambitions had outgrown it; James realized there might be a way of keeping his father “alive”.
A year earlier, in 2015, James wrote a story for The New York Times about Hello Barbie, a chatty AI version of the famous doll. The company behind it, PullString, was founded by Pixar alums and builds interactive characters like a Call of Duty bot, which had 6 million conversations the day it launched.
The CEO of PullString, Oren Jacob, told James at the time that they had ambitions beyond entertainment, wanting to empower conversations with people who no longer exist in the real world “...because they’re dead, like Martin Luther King.”
After James’ father was diagnosed with Cancer, by complete chance, PullString announced it intended to publicly release its software for creating these conversation agents. And so, James has the idea to use AI to create a “Dadbot – a chatbot that emulates not a children’s toy but the very real man who is my father”.
He keeps the idea to himself until he finally decides he must tell his parents. His Mom reacts with confusion, asking what exactly a Chatbot is. Jame’s father, exhausted from his cancer treatment, listens to the idea, to the list of pros and cons, and how James hopes the bot will be a way to share his father’s life.
How does his father react to the idea?
He shrugs and says, “OK.”
James' family overall were enthusiastic and encouraging, especially his Mom and his siblings. With their support, James decided to bring the idea to life.
Project “Dadbot” was a success. The AI bot had an accurate audible voice and could share and recall stories from his life. James’ story caught so much attention that he decided to build an app called HereAfter so others could do the same.
The public app offers anyone the chance to “let loved ones hear meaningful stories by chatting with the virtual you” for the tidy price of $7.99 monthly or a one-time $199 payment.
Whilst the app has gathered much press with its eye-catching theme, it’s difficult to say how well it's been received on a user level. There are hardly any reviews online or on The App Store. But there are anecdotes from reporters saying the avatars feel remarkably real besides the odd moment it’ll tell you it didn’t understand the question and asks you to repeat it in a different way.
HereAfter is not the only AI startup pursuing this idea. Rememory, a spin-off from DeepBrain AI, hopes to do similarly based on experience creating AI news anchors and virtual assistants. For $10,000 dollars, you can spend several hours in a studio, and they’ll create a video avatar of you that your family can pay to visit at one of their facilities in Korea.
Rememory has an edge with its video feature, but HereAfter’s voice bot is remarkably uncanny, and they’re investing much more effort into capturing the personality of the family member. And while it may be easy to poke holes in an AI video avatar as they appear today, with voice only, it’s easy enough to imagine a real human on the other end of a telephone.
So will you be rushing to create AI avatars of your loved ones before they’re no longer with us? Do you fancy a phone call with Martin Luther King? There will always be a demand and a drive for AI projects like these. And their retention will be extraordinarily high. It can’t be easy to cancel your subscription and say goodbye again.
Is it possible that your great-great-granddaughter could be talking to you beyond the grave? Yes, yes, it is. Whether you upload yourself so they can speak to you, well, that’s up to you.
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