This artist created an AI chatbot to talk to her younger self

Michelle Huang shares an unconventional method for advancing her own mental health and inner child work — with a little help from an AI chatbot and her childhood journal entries.

'I feel like I was reaching into the past in some sort of time portal,' says Michelle Huang

In the right half of the image, a young girl is sitting at her desktop computer typing. In the left half of the image, an adult woman is also sitting at a desktop computer typing.
Michelle Huang, a multimedia artist, created generative AI images inspired by her experiment creating a chatbot based on diaries she wrote as a child. (Submitted by Michelle Huang)

Would your eight-year-old self be proud of you? 

It's a question that plagued Michelle Huang. Since she couldn't go back in time to ask her real self, she decided to try the next best thing: create an AI chatbot based off of years of her childhood journal entries. 

Once the program was ready, Michelle named herself Present Michelle, and the chatbot Young Michelle and typed out her first message: "How are you?" 

"And then right before pressing submit, I was just like, 'Oh, man, I have no idea what's gonna happen,'" Huang told Tapestry

When Young Michelle replied almost immediately, Huang felt she was "reaching into the past in some sort of time portal through my computer."

Huang, a creative technologist and multimedia artist, says many of her projects meet at the intersection of art, technology and mental wellness. 

"I created the chatbot because I wanted to further my inner-child work, as well as push the frontiers of whether or not AI can be used for my own mental health," she said. 

Michelle Huang pictured in present day beside an image of her as a child.
Michelle Huang is a creative technologist and multimedia artist, pictured at left in a recent image and, at right, as a young girl. (Submitted by Michelle Huang)

Inner-child work is a therapeutic practice that involves "reconnecting" with the younger self that may hold trauma or, in Huang's case, a sense of wonder that she lost in adulthood. 

Huang said she selected journal entries that felt closest to the essence of who she is and fed the text into an artificial intelligence model called GPT-3. 

"So ones that were focused on values, kind of like my emotional world, my inner thoughts, my insecurities, my dreams — and the AI was able to construct a persona that would have responded in the same way that my younger self would."

A young girl embraces an adult woman while holding a large envelope. Behind them are stacks of journal entries.
Michelle Huang created AI images that were inspired by her chatbot experiment. (Submitted by Michelle Huang)

The most emotionally moving part of the experience for Huang was when she asked the chatbot to write a letter to her present-day self. 

"When she wrote me the letter, it was really kind and understanding," she said. 

"I was really, I think, moved, and part of me wasn't surprised because I think I knew that my inner child and my eight-year-old, 10-year-old self, she had a lot of love for other people. And being able to receive that love in such a visceral form — even though it was representative of a chatbot — was so healing."

A screenshot of part of the chatbot conversation between Present Michelle and Young Michelle in which Present Michelle asks Young Michelle to write her a letter.
Michelle Huang asked the chatbot, Young Michelle, to write a letter to her present day self. (Submitted by Michelle Huang)

The entire experience left Huang feeling "inspired" about the potential uses for AI for mental health. 

"It's kind of the same feeling you get when you finish a therapy session that was really productive and allowed you to see a part of yourself that maybe wasn't clear before."

When Huang shared the project's results to Twitter, the thread went viral. Eventually she added a step-by-step tutorial for those who wanted to try to replicate the experiment for themselves. 


McKenna Hadley-Burke is an associate producer for CBC Radio. She previously worked as a reporter for Cabin Radio in Yellowknife, NT.