Rise of the Deadbots

Authenticity is not something that can be conjured by digital necromancy.

The Singularity, I am informed, lies just around the virtual corner. Thus says smiling silicon oracle Ray Kurzweil, who also doubles as Google’s director of engineering. Of course, he’s been making this prediction routinely since at least 2005, when his The Singularity Is Near was published. I don’t know about the Singularity, but the convergence of man and machine (in this case, digital, programmable machines) upon which said Singularity depends is surely already here, wreaking ghostly havoc in our midst. As we wring our hands over the deceptive potential of ChatGPT, arguably more dangerous strains of the Artificial Intelligence virus have been developed within the last several years—most of them offshoots of the same GPT (Generative Pre-trained Transformer) digital architecture that spawned ChatGPT.

Among these are the AI applications popularly known as “deadbots,” which allow users to speak to the dead without secret rituals, mediums, Ouija boards, or cryptic table-tapping. If you have recently lost a loved one and are wrenched with unappeasable grief, if you need desperately to converse with your deceased daughter, or son, or spouse once again, there’s an app for that—a number of apps, in fact. This burgeoning industry has its origins in programmer Jason Rohrer’s Project December, a deadbot generator developed in 2019 with GPT-3 beta software provided by OpenAI. One of the earliest users of Project December, Canadian Joshua Barbeau, documented an “encounter” with his dead girlfriend, Jessica (later covered by the San Francisco Chronicle in a two-part feature called “The Jessica Simulation”). Barbeau and others claim that such interactions with the dead are therapeutic and can assist users in processing grief. Yet there are good reasons to be wary of such claims. The proliferation of deadbots poses serious ethical questions, and their growing acceptance is a measure of our desperate, post-human secularity.

I acknowledge that most cultures have endeavored in some fashion to communicate with the dead. It is well known that the ancient Egyptians developed various techniques for that purpose, and their Book of the Dead contains specific spells for drawing the attention of the deceased. Most often, the Egyptians sought advice or favors from the dead, usually by the agency of missives inscribed on papyrus or linen. Similarly, in ancient Greece and Rome seeking out the assistance and favor of the dead was common. Historians know of at least four so-called oracles of the dead in Greece, the best-known at Heraclea Pontica (in the Greek Megarian colony in Asia Minor), a sort of mountain resort for suppliants who would linger in underground chambers for weeks at a time in hopes of receiving otherworldly utterances. I could elaborate at length on such cultural practices, and some might agree with the defenders of deadbots that our own dialogues with the dead are not so very different from those of the Egyptians and Greeks—at worst, mere harmless distractions.

Yet at least two ethical objections have been raised that seem germane: First, the dead whom we conjure have not given their consent, except in those cases where consent was given prior to death. Have the dead no right to privacy? Second, what about those who engage in prolonged interactions with these simulacra of departed loved ones? Is there a point at which these speaking images of the dead become “real”—that is, a moment when for our post-human suppliants the distinction between the simulacrum and the reality begins to blur?

I would argue that we have been drifting in that direction for some time now. Those of us of a certain age have witnessed in our lifetime the transmutation of the Society of the Spectacle into a society of what French thinker Jean Baudrillard called the “hyperreal,” one in which the “real” dissolves into universal simulation—where the almost infinite proliferation of signs and images becomes all-consuming. In such a context, who is to say whether virtual copies of our deceased loved ones possess less authenticity than the flesh-and-blood original? Of course they do, but those of us who would insist upon the point are a dwindling number.

The question of authenticity is raised forcefully in “Be Right Back,” a 2013 episode of the highly acclaimed British science fiction series Black Mirror. Anticipating the development of AI deadbots by six years, this prescient tale involves a young woman, Martha, who loses her lover, Ash, shortly after they have moved into a new home to begin a life together. Distraught, pregnant, and unable to accept his death, she follows the advice of a friend who persuades her to contact an AI service that promises to bring the dead back to life, or at least virtual life. She provides the service all of Ash’s online messaging, his social media records, photographs documenting their relationship, and recordings of his voice.

At first, her interactions with the bot Ash are carried out on the phone, and she rapidly becomes obsessed, her awareness that she is communicating with a fabrication fading with each passing day. Then her relationship with the reborn Ash culminates in the appearance of a three-dimensional Ash who one day arrives and takes the place of the old Ash.

The bot Ash is not simply a hologram but seemingly an enfleshed copy who walks and talks and smiles just like the “real” Ash. Yet it is only a matter of days before Martha realizes that there are profound differences. For instance, there are numerous gaps in the bot Ash’s memories, since, after all, his “consciousness” is manufactured largely out of the detritus of his former online life. Nor does he require food or sleep, though the compliant doppelganger is only too happy to pretend to do these things to please Martha. But pleased she is not, and his docility angers her. He seems utterly passive, as though stripped of the power of will. Driven by sheer frustration, she takes him to a nearby cliff and urges him to leap off, but he begs for his life, and she relents. In the end, the hapless Ash bot is exiled to Martha’s attic like a dusty family heirloom, where her daughter is sometimes allowed to visit.

“Be Right Back” highlights the essential problem, which is the poverty of copies. Authenticity is not something that can be conjured by a software program. Authenticity, as poet Gerard Manley Hopkins insisted, lies in the “inscape” of a thing, its inner form or design as created by God. To say that each of us is unique is a truism, but there are layers and depths of originality in each of us that only someone who has known us intimately for years can detect. Subtle quirks of speech or body language or complexities of mood reflect an emotional spectrum of response to the world and others that is utterly peculiar, in the most positive sense of that term.

Yet our children are increasingly growing up in a world of simulacra, which often offers a false allure that many aspire to possess. Our uniqueness as individuals is, after all, sometimes a burden. If we are unique, we are also flawed, and the glamor of the perfect copy has its own seductive power.

I am confident that, for the foreseeable future, the deadbot industry will flourish. One reason for this is the radical decline of the traditional rites and rituals associated with death and burial in a culture that has been all but stripped of its sacred canopy. Those who still adhere to premodern religious beliefs and practices—some Jews, Catholics, the Orthodox, and some Protestants—can still look forward (in most cases) to a death circumscribed within rituals that provide them with tangible hope in the hereafter. Meanwhile their loved ones who remain behind to suffer their loss will have the consolation of the last rites, of funeral services designed to console and to channel grief toward prayer and penance, and of burial in the good earth in a familiar place where they may visit and honor their dead.

But for the majority of Americans, such rites have been drastically attenuated or have disappeared altogether. Think of the millions of “nones”—those who report on surveys that they have no religious belief—or of the millions more who, while they may not identify as “nones,” are nonetheless bereft of the spiritual resources they need to come to terms with the loss of a beloved. Today, in our profound secularity, we live sealed off almost entirely from the promise of a transcendent dimension, and thus when death strikes a parent, a child, or a dear friend, we flounder about blindly, desperate for consolation, for some way to accept our loss and move beyond it.

The agents of the Singularity are ready to assist us.

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