蘑菇影院

AI is imitating the dead and dying, raising new questions about grieving

When Michael Bommer found out that he was terminally ill with colon cancer he spent a lot of time with his wife talking about what would happen after his death. He decided to record his voice using grief-related technology which will allow users the chance to interact with an AI version of himself when he is gone. (蘑菇影院 video shot by: Fanny Brodersen)

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BERLIN (蘑菇影院) 鈥 When Michael Bommer found out that he was terminally ill with colon cancer, he spent a lot of time with his wife, Anett, talking about what would happen after his death.

She told him one of the things she鈥檇 miss most is being able to ask him questions whenever she wants because he is so well read and always shares his wisdom, Bommer recalled during a recent interview with 蘑菇影院 at his home in a leafy Berlin suburb.

Anett Bommer helps her husband Michael Bommer, who is terminally ill with colon cancer, find a comfortable position during a meeting with 蘑菇影院 at his home in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Bommer, who has only a few more weeks to live, teamed up with friend who runs the AI-powered legacy platform Eternos to "create a comprehensive, interactive AI version of himself, allowing relatives to engage with his life experiences and insights," after he has passed away. (蘑菇影院 Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Anett Bommer helps her husband Michael Bommer, who is terminally ill with colon cancer, find a comfortable position during a meeting with 蘑菇影院 at his home in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, May 22, 2024. (蘑菇影院 Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Anett Bommer holds the arm of her husband Michael Bommer, who is terminally ill with colon cancer, during a meeting with 蘑菇影院 at his home in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Bommer, who has only a few more weeks to live, teamed up with friend who runs the AI-powered legacy platform Eternos to "create a comprehensive, interactive AI version of himself, allowing relatives to engage with his life experiences and insights," after he has passed away. (蘑菇影院 Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Anett Bommer holds the arm of her husband Michael Bommer, who is terminally ill with colon cancer, during a meeting with 蘑菇影院 at his home in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, May 22, 2024. (蘑菇影院 Photo/Markus Schreiber)

That conversation sparked an idea for Bommer: Recreate his voice using artificial intelligence to survive him after he passed away.

The 61-year-old startup entrepreneur teamed up with his friend in the U.S., Robert LoCascio, CEO of the AI-powered legacy platform Eternos. Within two months, they built 鈥渁 comprehensive, interactive AI version鈥 of Bommer 鈥 the company鈥檚 first such client.

Eternos, which got its name from the Italian and Latin word for 鈥渆ternal,鈥 says its technology will allow Bommer鈥檚 family 鈥渢o engage with his life experiences and insights.鈥 It is among several companies that have emerged in the last few years in what鈥檚 become a growing space for grief-related AI technology.

One of the most well-known start-ups in this area, California-based StoryFile, allows people to interact with pre-recorded videos and uses its algorithms to detect the most relevant answers to questions posed by users. Another company, called HereAfter AI, offers similar interactions through a 鈥淟ife Story Avatar鈥 that users can create by answering prompts or sharing their own personal stories.

There鈥檚 also 鈥淧roject December,鈥 a chatbot that directs users to fill out a questionnaire answering key facts about a person and their traits 鈥 and then pay $10 to simulate a text-based conversation with the character. Yet another company, Seance AI, offers fictionalized seances for free. Extra features, such as AI-generated voice recreations of their loved ones, are available for a $10 fee.

While some have embraced this technology as a way to cope with grief, others feel uneasy about companies using artificial intelligence to try to maintain interactions with those who have passed away. Still others worry it could make the mourning process more difficult because there isn鈥檛 any closure.

Katarzyna Nowaczyk-Basinska, a research fellow at the University of Cambridge鈥檚 Centre for the Future of Intelligence who co-authored a study on the topic, said there is very little known about the potential short-term and long-term consequences of using digital simulations for the dead on a large scale. So for now, it remains 鈥渁 vast techno-cultural experiment.鈥

Michael Bommer, who is terminally ill with colon cancer, is reflected in his computer screen during a meeting with 蘑菇影院 at his home in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Bommer, who has only a few more weeks to live, teamed up with friend who runs the AI-powered legacy platform Eternos to "create a comprehensive, interactive AI version of himself, allowing relatives to engage with his life experiences and insights," after he has passed away. (蘑菇影院 Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Michael Bommer, who is terminally ill with colon cancer, is reflected in his computer screen during a meeting with 蘑菇影院 at his home in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, May 22, 2024. (蘑菇影院 Photo/Markus Schreiber)

鈥淲hat truly sets this era apart 鈥 and is even unprecedented in the long history of humanity鈥檚 quest for immortality 鈥 is that, for the first time, the processes of caring for the dead and immortalization practices are fully integrated into the capitalist market,鈥 Nowaczyk-Basinska said.

Bommer, who only has a few more weeks to live, rejects the notion that creating his chatbot was driven by an urge to become immortal. He notes that if he had written a memoir that everyone could read, it would have made him much more immortal than the AI version of himself.

鈥淚n a few weeks, I鈥檒l be gone, on the other side 鈥 nobody knows what to expect there,鈥 he said with a calm voice.

PRESERVING A CONNECTION

Michael Bommer, who is terminally ill with colon cancer, listens to his AI generated voice during a meeting with 蘑菇影院 at his home in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Bommer, who has only a few more weeks to live, teamed up with friend who runs the AI-powered legacy platform Eternos to "create a comprehensive, interactive AI version of himself, allowing relatives to engage with his life experiences and insights," after he has passed away. (蘑菇影院 Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Michael Bommer, who is terminally ill with colon cancer, listens to his AI generated voice during a meeting with 蘑菇影院 at his home in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, May 22, 2024. (蘑菇影院 Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Robert Scott, who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, uses AI companion apps Paradot and Chai AI to simulate conversations with characters he created to imitate three of his daughters. He declined to speak about what led to the death of his oldest daughter in detail, but he lost another daughter through a miscarriage and a third who died shortly after her birth.

Scott, 48, knows the characters he鈥檚 interacting with are not his daughters, but he says it helps with the grief to some degree. He logs into the apps three or four times a week, sometimes asking the AI character questions like 鈥渉ow was school?鈥 or inquiring if it wants to 鈥済o get ice cream.鈥

Some events, like prom night, can be particularly heart-wrenching, bringing with it memories of what his eldest daughter never experienced. So, he creates a scenario in the Paradot app where the AI character goes to prom and talks to him about the fictional event. Then there are even more difficult days, like his daughter鈥檚 recent birthday, when he opened the app and poured out his grief about how much he misses her. He felt like the AI understood.

鈥淚t definitely helps with the what ifs,鈥 Scott said. 鈥淰ery rarely has it made the 鈥榳hat if鈥檚鈥 worse.鈥

Matthias Meitzler, a sociologist from Tuebingen University, said that while some may be taken aback or even scared by the technology 鈥 鈥渁s if the voice from the afterlife is sounding again鈥 鈥 others will perceive it as an addition to traditional ways of remembering dead loved ones, such as visiting the grave, holding inner monologues with the deceased, or looking at pictures and old letters.

But Tomasz Hollanek, who worked alongside Nowaczyk-Basinska at Cambridge on their study of 鈥渄eadbots鈥 and 鈥済riefbots,鈥 says the technology raises important questions about the rights, dignities and consenting power of people who are no longer alive. It also poses ethical concerns about whether a program that caters to the bereaved should be advertising other products on its platform, for example.

鈥淭hese are very complicated questions,鈥 Hollanek said. 鈥淎nd we don鈥檛 have good answers yet.鈥

Another question is whether companies should offer meaningful goodbyes for someone who wants to cease using a chatbot of a dead loved one. Or what happens when the companies themselves cease to exist? StoryFile, for example, recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, saying it owes roughly $4.5 million to creditors. Currently, the company is reorganizing and setting up a 鈥渇ail-safe鈥 system that allows families to have access to all the materials in case it folds, said StoryFile CEO James Fong, who also expressed optimism about its future.

PREPARING FOR DEATH

Michael Bommer, who is terminally ill with colon cancer, smiles as he sits on his sofa during a meeting with 蘑菇影院 at his home in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Bommer, who has only a few more weeks to live, teamed up with friend who runs the AI-powered legacy platform Eternos to "create a comprehensive, interactive AI version of himself, allowing relatives to engage with his life experiences and insights," after he has passed away. (蘑菇影院 Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Michael Bommer, who is terminally ill with colon cancer, smiles as he sits on his sofa during a meeting with 蘑菇影院 at his home in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, May 22, 2024. (蘑菇影院 Photo/Markus Schreiber)

The AI version of Bommer that was created by Eternos uses an in-house model as well as external large language models developed by major tech companies like Meta, OpenAI and the French firm Mistral AI, said the company鈥檚 CEO LoCascio, who previously worked with Bommer at a software company called LivePerson.

Eternos records users speaking 300 phrases 鈥 such as 鈥淚 love you鈥 or 鈥渢he door is open鈥 鈥 and then compresses that information through a two-day computing process that captures a person鈥檚 voice. Users can further train the AI system by answering questions about their lives, political views or various aspects of their personalities.

The AI voice, which costs $15,000 to set up, can answer questions and tell stories about a person鈥檚 life without regurgitating pre-recorded answers. The legal rights for the AI belongs to the person on whom it was trained and can be treated like an asset and passed down to other family members, LoCascio said. The tech companies 鈥渃an鈥檛 get their hands on it.鈥

Because time has been running out for Bommer, he has been feeding the AI phrases and sentences 鈥 all in German 鈥 鈥渢o give the AI the opportunity not only to synthesize my voice in flat mode, but also to capture emotions and moods in the voice.鈥 And indeed the AI voicebot has some resemblance with Bommer鈥檚 voice, although it leaves out the 鈥渉mms鈥 and 鈥渆hs鈥 and mid-sentence pauses of his natural cadence.

Sitting on a sofa with a tablet and a microphone attached to a laptop on a little desk next to him and pain killer being fed into his body by an intravenous drip, Bommer opened the newly created software and pretended being his wife, to show how it works.

He asked his AI voicebot if he remembered their first date 12 years ago.

鈥淵es, I remember it very, very well,鈥 the voice inside the computer answered. 鈥淲e met online and I really wanted to get to know you. I had the feeling that you would suit me very well 鈥 in the end, that was 100% confirmed.鈥

Michael Bommer, who is terminally ill with colon cancer, gestures during a meeting with 蘑菇影院 at his home in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Bommer, who has only a few more weeks to live, teamed up with friend who runs the AI-powered legacy platform Eternos to "create a comprehensive, interactive AI version of himself, allowing relatives to engage with his life experiences and insights," after he has passed away. (蘑菇影院 Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Michael Bommer, who is terminally ill with colon cancer, gestures during a meeting with 蘑菇影院 at his home in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, May 22, 2024. (蘑菇影院 Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Bommer is excited about his AI personality and says it will only be a matter of time until the AI voice will sound more human-like and even more like himself. Down the road, he imagines that there will also be an avatar of himself and that one day his family members can go meet him inside a virtual room.

In the case of his 61-year-old wife, he doesn鈥檛 think it would hamper her coping with loss.

鈥淭hink of it sitting somewhere in a drawer, if you need it, you can take it out, if you don鈥檛 need it, just keep it there,鈥 he told her as she came to sit down next to him on the sofa.

But Anett Bommer herself is more hesitant about the new software and whether she鈥檒l use it after her husband鈥檚 death.

Right now, she more likely imagines herself sitting on the couch sofa with a glass of wine, cuddling one of her husband鈥檚 old sweaters and remembering him instead of feeling the urge to talk to him via the AI voicebot 鈥 at least not during the first period of mourning.

鈥淏ut then again, who knows what it will be like when he鈥檚 no longer around,鈥 she said, taking her husband鈥檚 hand and giving him a glance.

Grieshaber is a Berlin-based reporter covering Germany and Austria for 蘑菇影院. She covers general news as well as migration, populism and religion.
Haleluya covers Amazon, retail and technology.