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Talking to the dead, the future of artificial intelligence?

Deadbots are a new application of artificial intelligence. Personally, it scares me. Deadbots are chatbots that allow you to converse with dead people by imitating their responses. Their development is part of a more global context of virtualizing relationships and blurring the boundaries between the physical and digital worlds.

Joshua Barbeau spoke with his girlfriend, who had died 8 years ago

In August 2021, the San Francisco Chronicles published the story of Joshua Barbeau, a 33-year-old Canadian. Eight years earlier, the young woman he was in a relationship with, Jessica Pereira, died of a rare disease.

Wandering on the internet, Joshua stumbles upon “Project December,” a chatbot designed by an independent programmer named Jason Rohrer.

Then the unexpected happened. After opening an account, Joshua Barbeau “fed” the chatbot with messages he had saved from his deceased girlfriend. Based on Google’s GPT-3 library, the chatbot mimicked Jessica’s style perfectly and produced surprisingly … human responses.

Life after death: it is already possible … thanks to artificial intelligence

Joshua Barbeau’s example shows us that the advances in artificial intelligence hold some surprises for future applications. The difficulty of mourning and the variety of cults around death are so many opportunities to satisfy a request that was science fiction until now. Moreover, companies have not waited to see a financial windfall. The recent patent filed by Microsoft to develop a chatbot that would go as far as imitating the voice of the deceased person is an example.

Another disturbing experiment was realized in South Korea in 2020 using the combination of virtual reality and artificial intelligence (see video above). Jang Ji-Sung reunited for a brief moment with his daughter, who died 3 years earlier from a blood disease. The video below, which shows when the virtual meets the real, is disturbing and highly moving. It clearly shows all the questions that can arise from artificial intelligence to overcome the limits of death.

Artificial intelligence is also used to bring family photos back to life. Deep Nostalgia is a service proposed by MyHeritage that allows animating photos of deceased people. The result is impressive but can produce controversial results, as shown in the video below.

The ethical challenges of deadbots

As you can see, bringing the dead back to life poses several ethical problems. France was one of the first countries to take an interest in deadbots from a legislative point of view. In November 2021, the ethics committee issued an advisory opinion to the Prime Minister. This opinion includes a specific chapter for deadbots and raises several issues:

  • Consent of the deceased for the use of his data after his death
  • Risks resulting from the usurpation of the person’s identity (living or deceased)
  • Psychological impact on the person who converses with the deceased

The progress of artificial intelligence is a blessing for many fields. Algorithms are omnipresent and simplify our digital life, for example, by recommending us information content. However, each progress brings its share of deviances, as shown by these examples of hacking.

With deadbots, computer scientists are venturing into dangerous territory. Death is not a “domain” like the others. The human being became human when he became aware of his death. It is this consciousness that deadbots risk disturbing, despite all the precautions that we can take, by investing the field of the afterlife, this time artificial intelligence risks to make us regress.


Dr. Pierre-Nicolas Schwab is the founder of IntoTheMinds. He specializes in e-commerce, retail and logistics. He is also a research fellow in the marketing department of the Free University of Brussels and acts as a coach for several startups and public organizations. He holds a PhD in Marketing, a MBA in Finance, and a MSc in Chemistry. He can be contacted by email, Linkedin or by phone (+32 486 42 79 42)

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