How AI avatars of the deceased could transform the way we grieve


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MY MOM was the only one who would laugh at my corny jokes. That is in part because she was, in a sense, laughing at herself: I got my silly sense of humour from her.

I will never hear her easy, girlish laugh again. She died last year on 17 January at the age of 76, and there are still days when I would give anything to hear her voice. To my surprise, I recently learned that I could, and all I would have to do is offer her data to one of myriad “grief tech” apps available. For a small sum of money, or even for free, I could feed old voicemails, videos, text messages and emails into an algorithm and generate a digital avatar of her.

With the worst of my grief behind me, I am tempted. I could choose my own commune-with-the-dead journey using artificially intelligent chatbots, conversational videos or even an interactive séance. But there are risks. These digital alter egos, which have been around for several years, are becoming disarmingly realistic. I worry that keeping my mom around in the cloud – or my dad, who died nine months earlier – will wreck my grieving process. Will conjuring her digital ghost keep me connected, or could I regress to those painful months just after her death?

We don’t yet know how this burgeoning industry will change our relationships with loved ones who have passed. But recent psychological models of grief, paired with new insights into its neural mechanisms, give cause for concern. The growing realism of these apps allows them to “feed into the difficulty of grief”, says psychologist …

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