In the first episode of Black Mirror’s second season, a woman resorts to technology to bring her dead boyfriend back to life. First, she chats with an AI version of him, then she starts ‘calling’ him and hearing an artificial recreation of his voice. Finally, she purchases an Android designed to look and talk like her lost lover.
The fictional company that provided the AI in the Black Mirror episode used data from the dead man’s social profiles and digital interactions to recreate his personality. Now, Microsoft has secured a patent to do just that.
For example, if a loved one has passed, and you want to keep communicating with them, Microsoft could create a chatbot that imitates their behavior and responses.
The patent summary refers to “systems and methods of creating a conversational chatbot of a specific person,” using “social data (e.g., images, voice data, social media posts, electronic messages, written letters, etc.). . . to create or modify a special index in the theme of the specific person's personality,” which “may be used to train a chatbot to converse in the personality of the specific person. . . In some aspects, a 2D or 3D model of a specific person may be generated using images, depth information, and/or video data associated with the specific person.”
But the project is not limited to digitally resurrecting the dead. “The specific person,” Microsoft wrote, “may correspond to a past or present entity (or a version thereof), such as a friend, a relative, an acquaintance, a celebrity, a fictional character, a historical figure, a random entity, etc. The specific person may also correspond to oneself (e.g., the user creating/training the chatbot).”
The digital necromancy in the Black Mirror episode inevitably goes awry when the protagonist realizes that the android is a lifeless and pathetic echo of the man she loved. Though Microsoft may find many willing customers, one can’t help but wonder whether a chatbot that talks like someone you lost might be a healthy choice for someone in mourning.
Dealing with grief requires a healthy level of focusing on the here and now. If you keep talking to a digital recreation of the person you lost, how can you move on with your life?
The patent goes into a great deal of detail about how closely the chatbots would imitate the dead. "Conversing in the personality of a specific person,” the document states, “may include determining and/or using conversational attributes of the specific person, such as style, diction, tone, voice, intent, sentence/dialogue length and complexity, topic and consistency."
According to Assistant Professor of Counseling Elizabeth Tolliver, who studies grief at the University of Nebraska Omaha, the chatbots could become dangerously addictive. “I'm concerned that people would want more and more of the technology,” she says, “to feel closer to the person that they've lost rather than living the life they're currently alive in.”
On the other hand, the technology would allow Microsoft to profit from the digital footprint of the dead. It is unclear whether one would have to grant permission before passing or if the company could just look through the Internet and use any information they can find, which seems problematic, to say the least.
While Microsoft’s head of AI programs denies that the project is under development, other tech companies have similar plans. For example, Google has a patent to create “digital clones” based on people’s personalities, and a company called UneeQ is already marketing “digital humans.”
Like many of Black Mirror’s dystopias, this one seems like it’s just around the corner.