AI can bring you the voice of dead loved ones. But is this a good thing?

The concept of using AI to seemingly revive the dead is not a new one.(Flickr: Saad Faruque, CC BY-SA 2.0)

What would you do to hear the voice of your loved one again?

Since we’re living in an age of artificial intelligence (AI), the reality of this concept is — artificially and strangely — within reach.

Amazon announced on Wednesday it was working on an update to allow its Alexa digital assistant to mimic any voice, even that of a deceased family member.

For those experiencing complicated grief after the loss of a loved one, Tamara Cavenett, president of the Australian Psychological Society, says the research shows evidence that reliving and processing painful memories related to the loss can be helpful.

“It’s possible therefore that grief may be helped by having the ability to ‘talk’ to a simulation of deceased family or friends,” she said.

“That said it’s also possible doing so indefinitely may inhibit the ability for someone to come to terms with their loss and move on.”

Is AI blurring the boundaries between the physical and digital worlds?

At Amazon’s annual conference last week, a video shows a child ask, “Alexa, can Grandma finish reading me the Wizard of Oz?”

The voice of an older woman mimicking the child’s grandmother begins reading.

While no timeline was given on the launch of this feature, Rohit Prasad, Amazon senior vice-president and head scientist, said the updated system would be able to collect enough voice data from less than one minute of audio.

“We’re unquestionably living in the golden era of AI,” he said, “where our dreams and science fiction are becoming a reality.”

Prasad said human attributes such as empathy have become “even more important in these times of the ongoing pandemic when so many of us have lost someone we love”.

“While AI can’t eliminate that pain of loss it can definitely make their memories last,” he said.

A can of worms?

The concept of using AI in this way is not new. Cavenett says the appeal of this technology is clear but warns that it could tamper with natural processes and distort or interfere with a grieving person’s memory of their loved one.

“[People] may struggle to stop engaging with the technology at the expense of real-world friendships and connections,” Cavenett said.

“So, while there may be benefit to this technology it should be approached with great caution, the research just isn’t there yet.”

There are plenty of sci-fi film and TV examples exploring the rise and use of AI.

From Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, James Cameron’s The Terminator, through to Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, Spike Jonze’s sci-fi romcom Her, or Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.

But strikingly similar is Netflix series Black Mirror, in a season two episode.

A young woman struggles with the loss of her partner who died in a car crash. Following his death, she signs up to communicate with a chatbot version of him.

Love and Loss. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should, right?

It also comes with a range of ethical issues, such as using people’s data without their consent. 

“There is also concern with all technology as to how the data will be used and whether advancements might be designed specifically to increase engagement with the device,” Cavenett said.

“There is a risk here of corporate entities seeking to exploit the sadness and longing that many bereaved people feel.”

The one thing we do know is that when the people we love die, those of us who remain miss them.

“If you’re struggling with grief it can be helpful to see a psychologist,” Cavenett says.

“[They] can help you get unstuck, develop better adaptation and help you to emotionally engage with your memories and loss.”

Cavenett says in healthy grief, we imagine or remember our loved ones on the basis of what we knew of them in life. 

“Our memories of loved ones are an important part of the legacy they leave behind.”

Source: ABC News