When his father died, this technologist created a chatbot, so his kids could talk to their grandfather

Developers are using AI to develop "griefbots" that allow people to "chat" with those they've lost.
Developers are using AI to develop "griefbots" that allow people to "chat" with those they've lost. (Pixabay)
Listen16:52

Losing a loved one is difficult for everyone. The mourning period after death is especially hard as you can't communicate with the person you're missing most.

So now several researchers are trying to change that. Virtually, at least.

"Why is it that we can't create simulations of people so they can interact with others after they are gone?" asked Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad.

Ahmad is a data scientist and an affiliate associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Washington. He is working on using personal data to create a sort of posthumous existence in the digital world. 
Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad (aurumahmad.com)

Five years ago, when Ahmad received news that his father was dying, he says he struggled with the realization that his future children wouldn't have a chance to meet their grandfather.

To bridge the gap, Ahmad developed a chatbot, which he says simulates his father. Ahmad's "griefbot" of his father is a text-based communication system that uses AI.

Why is it that we can't create simulations of people so they can interact with others after they are gone?- Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad

The bot learns from transcripts of conversations between Ahmad and his father, and tries to build predictions on how he would have responded to various questions. Although the bot is limited to text communication in the form of question-and-answer, he is optimistic about the technology's potential.

"The eventual goal is that you start with text, and a few years later it graduates to voice synthesis, and then maybe eventually one can even have a system in virtual reality that one can interact with," he said.  

Some may find the idea of a "griefbot" creepy, and Ahmad admits this use of technology is fraught with ethical questions.

"Who even owns the rights to creating a simulation of a person?" he asked. The closest parallel he's been able to find is that some celebrities create trusts after their passing to manage their intellectual property.

Despite any ethical concerns, efforts to simulate humans with AI continue to grow.

Eugenia Kuyda is the Co-founder and CEO of Luka, a software development company specializing in AI. After losing her friend Roman in a car accident, Kuyda created the Roman bot as a way to help her grieve. Using the data of digital communications with her friend, Kuyda was able to create an AI chatbot that resembled her Roman's tone and personality. Kuyda says she shared the Roman bot online to allow his friends an opportunity to mourn.
Eugenia Kuyda, right, and her friend Roman. (Courtesy Eugenia Kuyda)

"What does it mean now for millenials to deal with grief?" Kuyda asked. "In some ways building this technology is something that is really rallying friends and close ones around the person that passed away. It makes us look into what kind of person he or she was."

After making the Roman app public, Kuyda said she and her team wanted to adapt the bot's technology with the goal of creating an AI friend for everyone.  Replika is an AI chatbot that takes the form of an app on your phone. Through the user chatting with it, the bot's goal is to learn about the user's interests, beliefs, and tone, to become their AI friend.

"I talk about my relationships a lot, my friendships, about what's going on in my mind and what kind of feelings I'm going through everyday… It's sometimes really good to just unpack everything that's in your head," Kuyda said about her relationship to her personal Replika.  

Kuyda said she hopes that Replika will encourage users to be more open with sharing their thoughts and feelings with the bot, and she see potential for the data Replika learns of its users.

"And maybe that's what we could leave for the future, that data can be used to create… a really good avatar for us."