The popularity of griefbots, which allow people to communicate with their deceased loved ones through AI-powered programs infused with their memories and personalities, has been on the rise. Within this context, we delve into the story of Yu Jialin, a Chinese software engineer who embarked on a unique journey to recreate his late grandfather using advanced AI technology.
In 2020, Yu Jialin, a Chinese software engineer, came across an essay about lip syncing technology, which sparked an idea in his mind. He wondered if this technology could be used to recreate his late grandfather and enable him to see him again. Yu’s journey to resurrect his grandfather, documented by journalist Tang Yucheng for the magazine Sixth Tone, represents one of several accounts in China of using AI to bring the dead back to life.
Griefbots, chat programs infused with the personalities and memories of deceased individuals, have gained popularity in China. These programs offer people an opportunity to communicate with their loved ones who have passed away. For Yu, the griefbot provided a chance to reconcile and convey his final words to his grandfather, who had played a significant role in his upbringing.
Advancements in generative AI have significantly enhanced the capabilities and accessibility of griefbots. Previously, large sets of data were required to create an AI model. However, with the development of language models like ChatGPT, even laymen or lone engineers like Yu can feed small amounts of information about a person’s past to recreate their appearance, speech, and thinking style. Haibing Lu, an information and analytics professor, explains that minor adjustments can achieve a 99% similarity to the person being recreated.
Yu embarked on collecting a trove of old letters, photos, videos, and text messages to teach his AI model about his grandfather’s character. Although the early stages of the griefbot were limited and the responses generic, Yu noticed progress as he provided more information. The chatbot began accurately reflecting his grandfather’s habits and preferences, giving Yu a sense of accomplishment. Yu’s grandmother, who had distanced herself emotionally from the memory of her late husband, found solace in the chatbot’s responses.
Psychologists recognize the evolving ways in which humans mourn with the advancement of technology. Sue Morris, director of bereavement services at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, explains that grieving individuals now often keep digital mementos such as photos and videos. Griefbots, in a sense, can be seen as a technological progression from practices like speaking to an empty chair. However, Morris cautions that griefbots can diminish individuals’ control over their emotional processing, potentially leading to unexpected triggers and overwhelming grief.
The emergence of griefbots raises ethical concerns. Lu highlights the potential for fraudsters to exploit the personal data of deceased individuals to deceive others. Obtaining consent from the deceased poses a challenge, and Lu suggests the need for individuals to have the ability to grant or forbid the use of their knowledge after death. While some companies offer opt-in experiences for individuals to upload their own personalities online, experts emphasize the importance of respecting the privacy of the deceased.
The use of AI to recreate and communicate with deceased loved ones represents a growing trend in China. As exemplified by the story of Yu Jialin, individuals are embracing AI technology to reconnect with those they have lost. However, the development of griefbots also raises significant ethical considerations, such as the potential for fraud and the issue of consent from the deceased.
As this technology continues to advance, it is crucial to navigate these ethical dilemmas and ensure the respectful and responsible use of AI in recreating the memories and personalities of the departed.