In the movie P.S. I Love You, Holly has a hard time letting go of her deceased husband Gerry, who died of a brain tumour. Then, on her 30th birthday, she starts receiving letters from Gerry. The letters keep coming in from time to time. Gerry knowing how hard it was going to be after his death, had arranged the letters and even a vacation to help his wife get over his death.
Losing a loved one can be devastating. Our cultures and religions help us get through the loss using rituals such as funerals, memorials, etc. Gerry's way of slowly disappearing from his wife's life using the letters after his death was one way to ensure the loss is not sudden, but gradual. Similarly, technology is making Gerry's way of helping someone grieve possible.
A few hundred years ago, humans did not have pictures to remember the dead. Moving images and videos came much later. And now, technology is promising more than just pictures or videos to remember our dead loved ones. It is promising to help us interact with the dead long after they have passed away.
Marina Smith MBE passed away at 87 in the UK. At her funeral, she talked to the guests and answered their questions.
How this became possible: Through an AI-powered technology built by her son's company StoryFile.
Dr Stephen Smith, the CEO and co-founder of LA-based AI company StoryFile played his mother's videos on a screen at a funeral. It looked like they were playing just a simple video of Smith, but actually, the digital avatar was also responding to questions asked by relatives at the funeral.
How does it work? First, it needs to be clarified that AI technology did not create answers to the questions. Dr Smith explained that the company recorded various videos of his mother answering a number of questions and split them up in small clips. Then, the AI technology matched the questions asked by guests to play the correct clip, simulating an interaction.
The guests were shocked to hear some of the answers and stories that the late Smith told them as they knew nothing about it.
When asked about whether the technology will be able to mimic a person beyond the constraints of pre-recorded and pre-fed data, Mr Smith said that there is no way to create a synthetic version of someone.
"Everything about us is so absolutely unique to us. There is no way you can create a synthetic version of me, even though it may look like me," Dr Stephen Smith told the BBC.
The technology will be available in the UK now. The company earlier also worked with Star Trek actor William Shatner in 2021 to document their careers using tech. Fans can interact with the "virtual" celebrities on StoryFile's website and the answers are all real.
StoryFile is not the only company betting big on bringing the dead back to "life" in one way or the other.
Here are 5 such technologies that are either already available or in progress:
1. Deep Nostalgia: This is an app that was released in 2021, which brings still photos of people to life. People can select a photo and then animate them. It was created by MyHeritage to help families bring the old photos of their families to life. Some have been using it to reanimate a photo of their dead loved ones.
2. Microsoft chatbot: Microsoft was given a patent in the US to develop chatbot software to create an AI version of living humans. The chatbot, which is still in progress, will use a deceased person's information like voice data, social media activity, e-messages, images etc to build a digital avatar of that person. Using the data, the AI will be able to interact with people in real-time and mimic their behaviour and answers.
3. Amazon's voice assistant: In the near future, Amazon will allow you to use your dead loved one's voice as a digital assistant capable of talking to you.
4. Project December: Joshua Barbeau, a freelance writer in Canada, stumbled upon a website called Project December which allowed him to speak to his dead ex-fiancé Jessica in the form of a chatbot. He chronicled his experience in an article for the San Francisco Chronicle. All Barbeau had to do was give the software some data about his ex-fiancé.
5. DeepBrain AI: This South Korea-based video systems provider promises to recreate deceased family members through their latest service called Re;memory. They promise to create a virtual avatar that will mimic a deceased person's personality, physique, voice, etc.
The entertainment industry is already using this technology in one way or the other. Top Gun actor Val Klimer lost his voice due to cancer, but he used AI to recreate his voice in real life. In the sequel to the movie, Top Gun: Maverick, the AI helped Klimer deliver his dialogue as Iceman. Makers of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story used AI to bring back Princess Leia played by late actor Carrie Fisher in the new movie. In another instance, late singer John Lenon's son was disheartened to see a virtual avatar of his father play at a concert.
Black Mirror episode Be Right Back explores the future of grieving in the times of AI. It depicts the software and the chatbots just like those that are already in the making now.
While there are pros and cons to the emerging technology, the Black Mirror-like situation is no longer just fiction. Are you creeped out by this or are you ready to embrace the change?