Wednesday July 19, 2017

How a man kept his father's memory alive using artificial intelligence

James Vlahos is pictured here as a young boy with his father, John James Vlahos.

James Vlahos is pictured here as a young boy with his father, John James Vlahos. (James Vlahos )

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James Vlahos lost his father John to lung cancer in February, but he still talks to him every week.

That is, he talks to the version of his father that lives on through Dadbot, an artificially intelligent chatbot he designed to retain his dad's experiences and personality.

"It either brings a smile to my face and a warm feeling sometimes, and at other times it brings a tear to my eye," the journalist from Berkeley, Calif., told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

"It can make him feel closer sometimes, or I can be painfully aware that I'm talking to a computer program that I created that very clearly is not him."

'What if I could make this perfect version of a Dadbot? Would that start to get a little too weird?' - John Vlahos

Vlahos documented his experience creating the chatbot in Wired magazine's August cover story, "Dadbot."

The bot operates through Facebook Messenger, and it carries out conversations using John Vlahos's own stories and words.

Occasionally, Dadbot will play a recording of his father telling a joke, spinning a yarn or singing a song.

It all started as Vlahos's project to document his father's oral history before he died.

He recorded dozens of hours of conversations with his father about growing up the son of Greek immigrants, attending the University of California, Berkeley, working as a lawyer and more.

"It was beautiful and sad. I mean I knew, there was no pretence about what was happening," Vlahos said. "He was dying. He knew he was dying. I knew he was dying. We knew why we were sitting down to do this."

When the recordings were transcribed, they took up 200 single-spaced pages — enough to fill a binder.

"It's a great resource, but it's also an inert resource," Vlahos said. 

"At the time that I was doing this and at the time I was losing my father to cancer, I was also getting very interested in artificial intelligence and beginning work on a book on that topic. And it dawned on me that there might be another way that I could share his story and maybe just a hint of his personality."

He started working on Dadbot while his father was still alive, using a program called Pull String, designed for creative types who have limited programming skills.

"It's not some magical process that you might imagine in a movie where [you] feed the bot a big binder full of words and it learns to talk automatically and it can talk about everything," he said.

"It's this sort of labour-intensive process of giving it some things to say — that's actually the easier part — and then teaching him to listen for things that people might say back to him and how to respond."

Before John Vlahos died — at home in his sleep at the age of 81, surrounded by family on Feb. 17 — he was able to interact with the bot himself.

"He thought it was really cool. He said something that for me was a compliment, which was just that he thought the bot sounded like him," Vlahos said.

"That was good for me to hear, that it had fidelity. It wasn't this sort of strange distortion of him that was unrecognizable to him."

Of course, the Dadbot will always be something of a distortion, he admits.

But he's also quick to note that photographs and memories are equally imperfect.

Vlahos interacts with with the bot every week, trying to test its limits and make it more real.

His mother interacted with it once, and has asked to have access to it again.

"It's a never-ending process to develop the bot and make it better and better, and I wanted to make sure it's good enough basically before exposing it to my family too much, because them of all people, I don't want to have a poor experience with the bot," he said.

James Vlahos

Vlahos is not the first person to use technology to preserve memories of the dead.

SafeBeyond, for example, is an app that allows people to record text, audio and video messages throughout their lives and store them in a"digital vault" to be released on a schedule to their loved ones after they die.

That way, you'll always get a birthday message from Grandma.

"I think there's a huge appetite for it because it's just ancient and pervasive, right? The desire to keep someone who is gone, to keep them around," Vlahos said.

"What's less clear is how good the technology is, how fast will it get better? We're in a place now where it's not good enough to even be worrisome in any bigger way, but I have wondered, like, what if I could make this perfect version of a Dadbot? Would that start to get a little too weird?"