Communicating with the Deceased: Harnessing A.I. Technology

At 75, Dr. Stephenie Lucas Oney still seeks her father’s advice. She is curious about how he dealt with racism and succeeded despite difficult odds. Her father, William Lucas, a Black man from Harlem, worked as a police officer, F.B.I. agent, and judge. Although he passed away over a year ago, Dr. Oney listens to his guidance through HereAfter AI, an app powered by artificial intelligence that generates responses based on interviews conducted with him before his death in May 2022.

Dr. Oney, an endocrinologist, created the AI profile primarily for her children and grandchildren to experience her father’s voice and his perspective firsthand. The use of A.I. technology to communicate with the deceased has raised ethical concerns and left some users unsettled.

StoryFile and HereAfter AI are two platforms that enable users to interact with virtual avatars of the deceased, prompting conversations based on responses to specific questions. Mark Sample, a professor of digital studies, notes that new technologies often lead to urge to connect with the deceased, as evidenced by Thomas Edison’s past attempt to invent a “spirit phone.”

StoryFile offers both high-fidelity and accessible versions of its service, allowing users to create avatars by answering prompts. Celebrities like Ed Asner and Marina Smith – a Holocaust educator – have avatars created to preserve their stories for future generations. Matt Asner, Ed Asner’s son, expressed astonishment and comfort at being able to interact with his late father. However, others found it morbid and unsettling.

Lynne Nieto, co-founder of Life Fitness, and her late husband, Augie, created a StoryFile avatar before his death from A.L.S. While the intention was to use it for charitable purposes, Lynne found it challenging to watch the file months after her husband’s passing. The avatars force users to confront their mortality, a topic often avoided in society.

HereAfter AI, created by James Vlahos, emerged from a chatbot he made of his father before his death in 2017. The app raised ethical concerns about consent and survivor perspectives. Alex Connock, a senior fellow at Oxford University, emphasizes the importance of obtaining consent for creating avatars of the deceased.

Dr. David Spiegel, an associate chair of psychiatry at Stanford School of Medicine, suggests that apps like StoryFile and HereAfter AI may help individuals grieve by revisiting memories of their loved ones. However, he emphasizes the need to maintain a realistic perspective and acknowledges that these avatars do not represent real communication with the deceased.

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