Alexa will soon bring you the voice of a deceased loved one. But is this a good thing?

What would you do to hear your loved one’s voice again?

As we live in an age of artificial intelligence (AI), the reality of this concept – artificial and strange – is within reach.

Amazon announced on Wednesday that it was working on an update that would allow Alexa’s digital assistant to mimic any voice, even that of a deceased family member.

For those experiencing complicated grief after the loss of a loved one, Tamara Cavenett, president of the Australian Psychological Society, says the research shows evidence that reliving and processing painful memories of the loss can be helpful.

Is AI blurring the boundaries between the physical and digital worlds?

At Amazon’s annual conference last week, a video shows a child asking, “Alexa, can Grandma read me the Wizard of Oz?”

An elderly woman’s voice, imitating the child’s grandmother, begins to read.

While no timeline was given at the launch of this feature, Rohit Prasad, Amazon’s senior vice president and chief scientist, said the updated system could collect enough voice data from less than a minute of audio.

“We are undoubtedly living in the golden age of AI,” he said, “where our dreams and science fiction become reality.”


Prasad said human qualities such as empathy “have become even more important in these times of the ongoing pandemic where so many of us have lost someone we love”.

“While AI can’t take away that pain of loss, it can certainly make their memories last,” he said.

A can of worms?

The concept of using AI in this way is not new. Cavenett says the appeal of this technology is clear, but warns that it can disrupt natural processes and distort or disrupt a grieving person’s memory of their loved one.

†[People] may struggle to stop using the technology at the expense of real friendships and connections,” Cavenett said.

There are plenty of sci-fi film and TV examples exploring the rise and use of AI.

From Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, James Cameron’s The Terminator, to Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, Spike Jonze’s sci-fi romcom Her, or Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.

But strikingly similar is the Netflix series Black Mirror, in an episode of season two.

A young woman struggles with the loss of her partner who was killed in a car accident. After his death, she signs up to interact with a chatbot version of him.

“I only came here to say one thing,” she wrote in her message to the chatbot.

“I am pregnant.”

“Wow. So I’m going to be a father? – it responds.

“I wish I was with you now.”

A case of life imitating art, imitating life

James Vlahos says this technology has been therapeutic in his own grieving process.

For months, Mr. Vlahos recorded his father’s life stories after he was diagnosed with cancer in 2017. Vlahos turned them into an interactive AI called Dadbot, which speaks with his father’s voice.

So it’s not that we get the real person back, just sounds that remind us of that.

In 2020, The San Francisco Chronicle published a story about 33-year-old freelance writer Joshua Barbeau who used a chatbot to have conversations with his partner Jessica. She had died eight years earlier of a rare liver disease.

Microsoft recently announced it was restricting the use of software that mimics a person’s voice, saying the feature could be used as a deception.

“This technology has exciting potential in education, accessibility and entertainment, yet it’s also easy to imagine how it could be used to inappropriately impersonate speakers and mislead listeners,” said Microsoft’s chief executive of AI. officer Natasha Crampton.

Love and loss. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should, right?

It also comes with a range of ethical issuessuch as using people’s data without their consent.

“There is also concern with all technology about how the data will be used and whether improvements can be specifically designed to increase engagement with the device,” Cavenett said.

All we do know is that when the people we love die, those of us left behind miss them.

“If you’re struggling with grief, seeing a psychologist can be helpful,” Cavenett says.

†[They] can help you loosen up, develop a better adjustment, and help you emotionally cope with your memories and loss.”

Cavenett says that in healthy grief, we imagine or remember our loved ones based on what we knew about them in life.

“Our memories of loved ones are an important part of the legacy they leave behind.”

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