Chatbot immortality

University of Washington’s artificial Obama created from reference videos and audio files.

While I like to kid myself that maybe I’m only a quarter or third of the way through my life, statistics suggest that I’m now in the second half and my future holds a gradual decline to the grave.  I’m not afraid of my age, it’s just a number1.  I certainly don’t feel it.  My father recently said that he doesn’t feel his age either and is sometimes surprised to see an old man staring back at him from the mirror.

As an atheist, death terrifies me.  My own and that of those I love.  I don’t have the easy comfort blanket of an afterlife and mourn the loss of everything an individual was when they cease to be. 

As a child, I was fortunate enough to know my grandparents and two of my great grandparents, but like most children just assumed that they’d always be around, and that they’d always been old.  It only struck me after they’d gone that these had once been young people with dreams, ambitions and adventures of their own.

I miss them, I wish I could talk to them, because they have helped make me who I am.  Then I look forward.  The time with my parents is limited and precious.  My daughter will never know the wonderful great grandmother after whom she was named.  It makes me angry that so much experience and knowledge is lost so regularly.

I read a beautiful article on wired about a man trying to give his father immortality through a chatbot.  His father was dying from cancer and what started as a project to store his life story, soon became the start of a journey to learn how to build a chatbot and make it feel real.  It’s a difficult read if you’ve known anyone with a terminal illness, especially considering maintaining the motivation to continue to work on the chatbot (or Dadbot as he is called) as his father gets worse.  It’s not a huge spoiler that his Dad was present for a demo of an early version and gave his approval.  Please take a moment to read the article slowly and think about how you’d feel both as the child trying to keep your father alive, but also as the parent, knowing you were dying and that an artificial version of you would be around after the real you is gone.

What was critical to this project was the large number of recordings James had of his father speaking naturally about his life.  Recordings that you need to plan to have otherwise anyone attempting this would end up with something slightly stilted, something that is only your memory of the individual.  I doubt this would bring comfort to anyone.  We crave the new experiences and this is what is needed.  James also included the audio from some of his interviews.  His chatbot can sing and tell stories in his father’s voice.

There’s a huge amount more that could be done here.  Combining voice replication technology such as Lyrebird with 3D facial reconstruction such as the “fake Obama” by the University of Washington, you could have a chatbot that felt as real as talking to someone over Skype.  Is this immortality?  I think it would certainly provide comfort to many and would be a great educational tool, allowing children to ask questions and interact with famous people from our present.

The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying!
— René Magritte Are images of things, the things themselves?

We’d know these constructs would be programs.  Programs that would give us comfort certainly, but they would only be as good as the people who created them.  We need something that really captures the essence of what it is to think like a human.  As I’ve discussed before, we don’t really know what that is.  While I believe we are an amazing emergent property of our biochemistry, until we know where the change is from a circuit to self awareness, we are never going to be able to design this into a system that can give us digital immortality.

While I know right now, I could have some sort of immortality through a chatbot, this isn’t what I want2.

I want to live on.  There is too much beauty in the universe and too much to learn and understand for one lifetime.  I want a future where I can head for the stars.  While there’s a whole philosophical argument over whether a digital copy of me is me, just because it’s not biological, I’d be happy moving from a physical existence (in another 50 years or so!) to a digital one.

  1.   “Day” is a vestigial mode of time measurement based on solar cycles.  It’s not applicable…
  2. Although I’m really temped to start building digital me, creepy though that may be…

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Dr Janet is a Molecular Biochemistry graduate from Oxford University with a doctorate in Computational Neuroscience from Sussex. I’m currently studying for a third degree in Mathematics with Open University. During the day, and sometimes out of hours, I work as a Chief Science Officer. You can read all about that on my LinkedIn page.