After losing someone dear to you, you'd likely give anything in order to talk to them just one more time. To share things you didn't get the chance to before they passed, or to update them on things that have happened since. Through what means would you be willing to talk to them again? Where's your line?
In our ever-increasingly digital era, we're starting to see advancements in technology that people of the past could have never even dreamt up, including a way to speak to the dead through AI.
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In The Great Beyond
For centuries now, there's been one taboo human desire that has captured interest and curiosity the world over: speaking to the dead.
Many cultures have devised ways to speak to the dead, from summoning rituals to the classic Ouija board to everything in between. Psychic mediums, zombification, you name it, it's probably been thought of. It makes sense, though. We all experience loss and the grief that comes with it, so of course there are many people who would have been willing to do anything to speak to a loved one again.
The Modern Age
Now, the idea of speaking to the dead is largely regarded as fantasy. Even if you do believe in gifted people who can commune with the other side, that doesn't mean it's always going to work, that's entirely out of your control.
However, one modern advancement may be the key to being able to reliably and frequently talk to the dead, that being artificial intelligence or AI.
Through the advancement of chatbots in particular, companies are seeing this as a way someone could 'resurrect' a loved one who has passed.
Learning From Us
First, let's discuss how these chatbots actually work, using the most popular one to date, ChatGPT.
ChatGPT is an AI program that falls under the 'large language model' classification, meaning it's a program largely centered around language and speaking. It's been trained on over 300 billion words from across the internet that has helped it learn how people talk to one another online.
On ChatGPT's website, you can feed it any question or prompt and it will give you an answer. To prove its strength and ability, ChatGPT has passed the bar exam with flying colors, helped write scientific papers, and has even convinced other AI researchers that it has its own intelligence.
Of course, that's not true. It is still just a robot, one that has also been known for providing less-than-true information when asked certain questions.
All that said, it's still a marvel of modern technology, and chatbots can still adopt a very human voice if prompted. This is where Project December comes in.
Project December is a company founded by programmer Jason Rohrer who realized he can use AI learning models to feed a chatbot a person's personality, history, and writing style in order to make that bot mimic a real person.
A New Name
He decided to focus that capability on helping people create chatbots of deceased loved ones, which is what Project December is all about.
The result is something being called 'thanabots,' derived from the word thanatology, which means the study of death. Leah Henrickson, a lecturer in digital media and cultures at the University of Queensland, Australia, believes that thanabots could easily gain traction and become rather popular given the rising public use of AI. With so much of our communication taking place online these days, it would also be much easier to feed a chatbot someone's entire life so it can mimic them.
"These systems may be created without prior consent from the deceased, or may constitute part of 'digital estate planning' wherein someone plans or consents to the creation of their own thanabot," Henrickson wrote in a paper published earlier this year.
She even believes these types of bots would be helpful to those grieving,
"We may be able to provide more suitable support for those grieving, allow for alternative forms of estate management, and contribute to meaningful cultural understandings of death."
The Risk At Hand
These bots aren't perfect, though. They can't be. There's only so much about a person they can learn, especially since it can only parrot a person's online presence, which may not be a perfect 1:1 with how they act in real life.
There's also the fact that, while this may be a healthy means of overcoming grief for some, for others it could only make things worse. There's no way to know if the use of a thanabot is right for someone yet.
Still, it's a fascinating perspective, and definitely gets us thinking about just how impermanent death may become in an ever-increasing digital age.
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