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?

Since we live in the age of artificial intelligence (AI), the reality of this concept is — artificially and strangely — within reach.

Amazon announced on Wednesday that it was working on an update to allow its Alexa digital assistant to imitate 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 research shows reliving and processing painful memories related to loss can be helpful.

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

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

The voice of an older woman mimicking the child’s grandmother begins to read.

Although no timetable was given for the launch of this feature, Rohit Prasad, senior vice president and chief scientist of Amazon, said that the updated system would be able to collect enough voice data to 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 come true.”


Prasad said human attributes 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 box of worms?

The concept of using AI in this way is not new. Cavenett says the appeal of this technology is clear, but warns it could alter natural processes and distort or interfere with the memory of someone grieving their loved one.

“[People] may struggle to stop engaging with technology at the expense of real-world friendships and relationships,” Cavenett said.

There are many examples of sci-fi movies and television exploring the rise and use of AI.

From Metropolis by Fritz Lang in 1927, Blade Runner by Ridley Scott, The Terminator by James Cameron, passing through Ex Machina by Alex Garland, the sci-fi romantic comedy Her by Spike Jonze or Interstellar by Christopher Nolan.

But surprisingly similar is the Netflix series Black Mirror, in a season two episode.

A young woman grapples with the loss of her partner who died in a car accident. After he dies, she signs up to communicate 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’ll be a dad?” he replies.

“I wish I was there with you now.”

A life case 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 that speaks with his father’s voice.

So it’s not like we’re picking up the real person, just sounds reminiscent of them.

In 2020, The San Francisco Chronicle published an article 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 that it is restricting the use of software that mimics a person’s voice, saying the feature could be used as an act of deception.

“This technology has exciting potential in education, accessibility and entertainment, yet it is also easy to imagine how it could be used to impersonate speakers inappropriately and deceive listeners,” said said Natasha Crampton, head of AI at Microsoft.

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

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

“There are also concerns with all technologies about how data will be used and whether advancements could be designed specifically to increase engagement with the device,” Cavenett said.

The only thing we know is that when the people we love die, those of us who remain miss them.

“If you’re grieving, it can be helpful to see a psychologist,” says Cavenett.

“[They] can help you unblock, develop better coping, and emotionally engage with your memories and your 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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