Technologies have emerged that allow us to talk to our dead relatives. We are ready?
Script snippets like this sounded unnatural and strange, but as we moved on, as my mother recounted the memories and spoke in her own words, “she” sounded much more relaxed and natural.
However, this conversation and subsequent ones were limited – when I tried to ask my mom’s bot about her favorite jewelry, for example, I got: “Sorry, I didn’t understand that. You can try asking in a different way or move on to another topic.”
There were also mistakes that led to absurdity. One day, my dad’s bot asked me how I was. I said, “I’m sad today.” He responded with a joyful, optimistic “Good!”
The overall experience was undeniably strange. Every time I talked to their virtual versions, it amazed me that I could talk to my real parents instead. One day my husband mistook my bot testing for a real phone call. When he realized it wasn’t, he rolled his eyes, snorted, and shook his head like I was completely crazy.
Earlier this year, I got a demo of a similar technology from a five-year-old startup called StoryFile that promises to take it to the next level. Its Life service records video responses, not just voice.
You can choose from hundreds of related questions. Then you record the person answering the questions; this can be done on any device with a camera and microphone, including a smartphone, but the better the recording, the better the result. Once the files are uploaded, the company turns them into a digital version of the person you can see and talk to. He can only answer the questions he was programmed to answer – almost like here and after, only with the help of a video.
StoryFile CEO Steven Smith demonstrated the technology during a video call where his mother joined us. She died earlier this year, but here she was in touch, sitting in a comfortable chair in her living room. For a while I could only see her through Smith’s screen. She was quiet, with thin hair and friendly eyes. She gave life advice. She seemed wise.
Smith told me that his mother “attended” her own funeral: “At the end she said, ‘I guess that’s all from me… goodbye!’ and everyone burst into tears. He told me that her digital engagement was well received by family and friends. And, perhaps most importantly, Smith said he was deeply comforted by the fact that he was able to capture his mother on camera before she passed away.