Fact follows fiction, with a new documentary exploring the sci-fi scenario where loved ones are recreated using artificial intelligence to be able to converse from beyond the grave.
“Eternal You,” directed by Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and focuses on the emerging business of creating AI avatars of the dead.
As first reported by Rolling Stone, the film features the story of Christi Angel, who used an AI chatbot called Project December to “communicate” with a significant other who had passed away. What happened next would fit a Hollywood horror flick.
When Angel asked the AI avatar where he was, the chatbot responded, “In hell.”
Turning to technology to fill a void left by a partner, parent, or close friend is hardly new. Enlisting AI before someone passes away is one strategy to achieve a type of immortality. And “ghost bots” are already a trend in China. But experts question the psychological, emotional, and ethical impact of the practice.
For his part, Project December founder Jason Rohrer is also intrigued by the narrative possibilities.
“I am also interested in the spookier aspect of this,” Rohrer reportedly said. “When I read a transcript like that, and it gives me goosebumps, I like goosebumps.”
Rohrer has not yet responded to Decrypt’s request for comment.
A likely cause of Angel’s terrifying chatbot experience could be attributed to the ongoing issue of AI hallucinations. In AI models, hallucination refers to instances when an artificial intelligence responds confidently in inaccurate, nonsensical, or disturbing ways.
Chatbots like OpenAI’s ChatGPT have exploded in popularity after the public launch of the landmark generative AI model last year. Chatbots that are trained on the data of a deceased person are called ”thanabots.“ The term comes from thanatology, which refers to the scientific study of death, focusing on the needs of the terminally ill and their families, exploring physical, emotional, and cultural aspects. The field also includes the societal attitudes and rituals around death.
AI-generated video deepfakes of deceased people went viral on TikTok last May. These short video clips included video, audio, and first-person descriptions of children, including Royalty Marie Floyd, who was murdered in 2018.
A deepfake is created with artificial intelligence that depicts false events. While deepfake pictures are the most known form, video and audio deepfakes are becoming more prevalent thanks to generative AI.
The use of AI “thanabots” has prompted some mental health experts to warn that having a digital avatar of a deceased loved one gets in the way of the grieving process.
“Using AI to create an avatar for personal or commercial use should be considered carefully, given the potential impact on a person who is grieving that loss,” Grief, Loss and Bereavement Therapist and Educator Elizabeth Schandelmeier told Decrypt. “Moving through grief is a process of adapting and integrating loss into our lives and helps us make sense of the immense changes that the death of someone significant to us can bring.”
A fellow in Thanatology and grief expert at the Howling Lion Grief Support Center, Schandelmeier said a part of the grief process is developing the narrative of a person’s life, their legacy, the story of who they are, and how they have touched their life.
According to Schandelmeier, using AI to recreate a person could greatly disturb that process because the AI image or persona may be very similar but will not be exactly like the person who died.
“Any differences will create cognitive dissonance and challenge the grieving person’s perception and memories, which could be deeply disturbing and extremely confusing,” Schandelmeier said. “This could also inhibit a person’s ability to adapt to their current life and lead to resistance to the very real and practical changes that accompany a death.”
Elreacy Dock, Thanatologist and Adjunct Professor of Thanatology at Washington-based Capstone University, notes that using artificial intelligence to mimic or replicate a deceased loved one, has its pros and cons. Interacting with an avatar of a loved one might offer comfort and closure, allowing them to see their loved one again and express unshared feelings, aiding in coping with the loss.
“Although these benefits are very promising, the use of these avatars can still be a cause for substantial concern,” Dock said.
As Dock explained, interacting with an AI avatar of a deceased person—particularly for a person who is still in the initial stages of denial or shock—may become emotionally dependent on their interactions with an AI avatar of their loved one.
“A final consideration that is worth acknowledging is that the use of AI avatars to replicate the likeness of a deceased loved one can potentially be very upsetting for some individuals,” Dock said. “Although there is an ongoing discussion about eventually trying to integrate someone’s consciousness and memories into AI, simulated interactions and responses typically will not be able to replace that unique relationship that was shared with a loved one or the overall value and significance of a human connection with them.”
Especially, one imagines, if that loved one says they’re texting from hell.
Edited by Ryan Ozawa.