A young solicitor sits down with her client to go through some issues in relation to administering his deceased father’s estate. Some of the wording is ambiguous and a solution needs to be found to determine what, exactly, the testator wanted done with certain assets.
“No problem,” the client says, “I’ll just ask him.”
The client isn’t planning on visiting a psychic or holding a séance. He is planning to consult an AI-powered digital avatar of his dead father, which will look, sound and – perhaps? – think like him.
Science fiction? For the moment, but not for long, maybe, given the rise of ‘Grief Tech’.
This is a reasonably recent phenomenon in which you can (for a small fee) talk to your dear departed, and for the moment it is pretty basic.
You select the particular service you want – chatbot, conversational video, virtual séance – and hand over any emails, text messages and voice recordings of the departed. Most of them will have you do a basic personality test of the subject as well.
Sophisticated algorithms will then create the avatar and you can catch up with that person whenever you need. At the moment, these avatars are fairly clunky, with users often reporting the experience to be little more than a “there there, everything will be all right” in the same voice as the deceased would have used. As always, however, Silicon Valley isn’t likely to leave it at that.
For example, Steven Smith, the founder of one grief tech provider – StoryFile Life – created a digital avatar of his mother that spoke at her funeral.
StoryFile takes pre-recorded interviews of the person who wishes to become a digital avatar answering various questions, and then combines them in such a way as to create a realistic conversation with the avatar.
While that seems harmless enough, there are some big concerns, not the least of them involving mental health. A part of the grieving process is finally accepting that the deceased is gone and never coming back – this is likely to be inhibited by being able to chat with the deceased every day. It may also be a way for an over-bearing parent to continue to harangue their offspring from the undiscovered country.
In StoryFile’s case, of course, the deceased has chosen to be remembered; but that is not the case with many of the other options. I miss my Dad greatly, but have no plans to have him resurrected digitally – and he would have hated the idea.
I didn’t even like the way the morticians made him look at the viewing, I am pretty sure a computer game version of him would have just creeped me out. It probably isn’t possible anyway, given that Dad had almost no on-line presence, voice recordings etc. That isn’t the case for most people.
AI is an ever-more present part of modern life, and it spends a lot of time learning about the people who use it. Siri knows the music you like, your favourite restaurants and where you get your news. A digital avatar of a departed loved one powered by AI, and informed by years of interacting with that person, will likely be able to converse with you in pretty much exactly the same way that the loved one themselves would have. Wouldn’t people be tempted to consult them about an ambiguity in a will?
As usual, this technology is running well ahead of regulators and the law, and eventually some people may be turning to lawyers with questions about grief tech.
Will someone challenge a bequest under a will on the basis that grandma’s digital avatar said she disagreed with the executor’s decision? How long before a client wants a will that actually refers disputes to their digital avatar? Better yet, what about a will that is in the form of a digital avatar which can directly answer any questions lawyers, executors and beneficiaries may have?
Clients may soon be asking lawyers about the legal implications of creating a digital avatar of themselves, or indeed how to prevent someone from doing so after they die.
The recent strike by Hollywood actors was in part prompted by the use of their images after death. It is easy to see some clients may share the same concerns, and at the moment we do not have much to tell them.
The technology to do this is already here, and governments, regulators and lawyers need to turn their minds to dealing with it.
As Star Trek’s Captain Kirk once noted, how we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life. Indeed, especially when death no longer carries the finality it once did.