Is there a way to achieve (artificial) immortality? What would that look like?
This month’s Wired featured an article where journalist James Vlahos sought to immortalize his dying father by creating a chatbot that would mimic his dad’s knowledge, expressions and speech mannerisms. His moving account provided rich material for reflection.
For a good portion of the article, the journalist recounts in detail the process of deciding and executing his idea. It took months of preparations, interviews and countless hours of programming. While some machine learning was used, the bulk of the work laid on his own knowledge of his father. He wanted to ensure the bot would respond in a way that would make the user feel like he was talking to the father. He even ensured the grammatical construction of sentences would reflect his father’s speech.
Even more interesting than the process itself were the questions that emerged as his project progressed. How would he and other family members feel about the bot after his father was gone? Would they feel like talking to the bot or would it creep them out? His personal project is a powerful anecdote of this new era where machines are increasingly acquiring human traits.
It is not just about how the machines are changing but even more importantly, how we respond to them. There are those who will interact the bot and be able to compare with the human person the bot was made to emulate. Yet, what about the grandkids who will have a greater exposure to the bot than to their actual grandfather? What type of relationship will they develop with the chatbot? Could the chatbot become its own entity, somewhat independent from the human it was built to emulate?
Honoring Our Fathers Through Technology
Last week, I received my cousin’s first book in the mail. In it, he recounts his journey to uncover details about the torture his parents suffered by the repressive Brazilian dictatorship in the early 1970’s. Besides having national significance as the country seeks to come to grips with that dark period of their history, the story is very personal to our family. Yet, what impressed me the most was his desire to make his parents story known so his children would not forget. In some ways, it was a book to honor his parents’ story, ensuring their memory would outlive them.
This desire to memorialize our parents is not new. In the Hebrew Scriptures, it is codified in the fifth commandment: “Thou shall honor thy father and thy mother.” Could this honoring now be done through these new technologies? As the Wired article demonstrated, it certainly can. In some ways, it is the next step in our current ways of memorializing our ancestors with pictures, books and videos. What makes this new stage unique is how these objects can now interact with us. When we look at videos and pictures, they are fixed snapshots of a past. Our feelings toward them may change but they themselves are static. Yet, as machine learning advances and AI takes on voice and possibly a physical appearance we now have the possibility to not just recall memories but actually create new ones. In fact, a well trained AI could create new content never spoken by the original human. It is, in one sense, the closest we have to bringing the dead back to life.
Memorializing or Idolizing?
It is at this point that I wonder whether our memorializing can quickly descend into idolizing. Let me explain. I wonder at what point the creation meant to resemble our ancestor becomes an independent entity that we relate to and revere. The warning in Scriptures about idolizing is always about replacing the real for the fake. Venerating the fake god instead of the real God. In the same way, could these artificial creations meant to resemble our real ancestors come to replace them in our memory and in our experience? How ironic that in an effort to memorialize somebody we could actually speed up the process to forget and replace them.
Thankfully, these technologies are still in their rudimentary stage so we can start asking these questions now. As the technology improves, it will become increasingly difficult to separate the real person from their artificial creation. So the question becomes, to what extent do we want to use this technology to honor our parents without fully replacing their memory with an artificial image of their real selves? What do you think?