The Talking Dead: China's New AI 'Revives' The Departed

Sarah Merly | May 24, 2023
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China has developed a generative AI technology allowing deceased friends and family to “talk” with their departed loved ones.

Yu Jialin, a 29-year-old software developer in China, had longed for a reunion with his passed grandfather when he read an essay about lip-syncing technology. This unexpected find in 2020 led to several months of research and programming in order to digitally interact with his grandfather’s “griefbot.”

“It seemed that everyone in the family was trying their best to forget Grandpa rather than remember him,” says Yu.

Griefbots work similarly to ChatGPT. For his grandfather’s griefbot, Yu fed photos, letters, and text messages into his computer. As a result, the computer learned how to mimic Grandpa’s speech patterns and personality. Last month, Tang Yucheng of Sixth Tone magazine reported the success of Yu’s efforts–and its impact on Jialin’s grandmother.

“As the last video faded out, she seemed lost in thought. A few moments later, she looked at Yu and, her voice trembling, simply said: ‘Thank you,’ before returning to her room,” reports Tang.

By all accounts, Yu worked on this innovation as an act of kindness for himself and his grandmother. They needed the closure, the understanding, the memories. Or did they?

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Although griefbot developers like Yu may have good intentions, creating digital profiles of the long-gone to stand in for the actual human being raises poignant ethical concerns. If the culture grows to treat griefbots and their passed counterparts as one and the same, then our society will only grow in its skepticism of life’s sanctity. After all, if humans by themselves cannot achieve immortality, why not tout griefbots as more transcendent and more valuable? More like what humans are “supposed” to be?

Our awareness of our mortality helps us refute that idea. When we consciously acknowledge that death could come knocking at our door at any minute, we are inspired to live in a more inspiring and upright way. 

Griefbots like Yu’s are still in the beginning stage of development. However, if we are to fight for human dignity, our understanding of life’s sanctity must be more advanced.

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