Talking with the dead

How will it affect our grieving process? Does it provide us with some closure? Will it become a new addiction whereby the living will enjoy spending more time with the digital shadows rather than live people? We can’t know for sure


Since the dawn of humanity, people have always been fascinated with the possibility of an afterlife. All the influential civilizations, from the Sumerians, Egyptians, and Romans up to the modern religions of today, provided a written interpretation of what might happen once we’re gone.

Presumably, even older cults had some explanation since it is a known fact that they believed in supernatural events, worshiped different deities, and prepared their dead meticulously. Interestingly, many of these civilizations appointed people to act as interlocutors between humans and the divine. In some cases, these people could also communicate with the spirit world. They went by many names; some were called wizards, shamans, psychics, mediums, and many others. But in this year and age where technological advancements abound, is it possible to have something more technological?

This possibility has been floating around for quite a while. In the San Junipero episode of the famous TV Show Black Mirror, the authors propose a simulated reality where deceased people can have their brains uploaded to a server which allows them to live over there forever.

Such a system will let their loved ones visit them whenever they want and see them using their preferred avatar. Irrespective of whether they died as frail individuals covered with the marks of a debilitating disease, they will show up in the simulator as their healthy selves. Of course, this might sound like a page from a science fiction novel, but a few years back, someone accomplished something similar.

Eugenia Kuyda, a tech entrepreneur, lost her best friend, Roman, in a traffic accident. She missed their long conversations dearly and couldn’t even visit his grave since his remains were cremated. Considering they were both techies, they exchanged many photos and thousands of SMS text messages when he was alive.

Thus, she decided to feed all of this data to an Artificial Intelligence (AI) system and created the Luka app, a chatbot that mimics Roman. The result is nowhere close to the real thing, more like a digital shadow of the person, but at least Eugenia can now chat with an entity that reminds her of him. She uses this digital memorial as a grieving therapy to keep his memory alive throughout the years.

In an unrelated event around 2016, a lady in South Korea called Jang lost her seven-year-old daughter Nayeon after an incurable disease. The Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation created a documentary called “I Met You” whereby they immersed Jang in a Virtual Reality (VR) experience. Thus, she could not only converse with an avatar of Nayeon but also see and interact with her in the virtual world. The company reconstructed a three-dimensional model of her daughter from images they had of the girl. Jang was also equipped with datagloves, allowing her to touch and interact with the girl.

The reunion was highly emotional since the VR system tricks the brain and makes the user believe that the avatar is almost real. She was crying through most of the session, and her family (who were watching from afar) were astounded.

The experience also took Jang through real-life situations, like walking through a park and celebrating the girl’s birthday party. The production of such an experience was quite cumbersome, whereby a few minutes of VR took months to create.

Now fast forward to today, and we have a different situation. With the advent of advanced AI methodologies and the rise of deep fake technologies, we can create photorealistic avatars of anyone we want in a matter of minutes. Such technology allows Hollywood to bring deceased actors back to the big screen.

James Dean, the famous actor who died in a 1955 car crash, will be making a comeback due to a new movie called “Finding Jack”. Dean’s interpretation uses “full body” computer-generated imagery (CGI) based on actual footage and photos of the actor.

In the Star Wars movie “The Rise of Skywalker”, Carrie Fisher, one of the leading actresses who portray Commander Leia Organa, died unexpectedly before they began filming. The director used old footage and digital magic to bring the actress back to life.

As part of the same franchise, James Earl Jones, the voice of Darth Vader, just retired from the scene, and the company bought the rights to his voice so they can recreate new dialogues using AI.

Earlier this year, Joe Rogan AI interviewed Steve Jobs, the former Chief Executive Officer of Apple Inc, on the website. The only problem is that Steve Jobs died in 2011. An AI conducted the interview, and the replies were generated by another AI trained on Steve Jobs’s biography.

As one can see, talking with the dead is not so far-fetched today. Digital technology allows us to do this and much more. Of course, we still need to understand this technology’s impact on our society.

How will it affect our grieving process? Does it provide us with some closure? Will it become a new addiction whereby the living will enjoy spending more time with the digital shadows rather than live people? We can’t know for sure.

What’s for sure is that if used well, it can help make a difference for those whose lives stopped when their loved ones passed away.

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