Some Canadians are using AI simulations to reconnect with their deceased loved ones | CBC Radio

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The Current24:15Reconnecting with lost loved ones — with the power of AI

Chris Zuger struggled to cope with his father’s sudden death in 2022. He missed their phone calls and text message conversations, and the jokes and opinions they shared together.

So when the absence became too much to bear, Zuger turned to the artificial intelligence (AI) program ChatGPT to try, in some ways, to recreate those interactions.

“I had a trove of his texts, his speech patterns,” he told The Current‘s Matt Galloway, from Ottawa. “Then I said, ‘When I say hello, you respond back as this pattern’ — and it did.”

Zuger said the text conversation was brief, but it helped him appreciate his relationship with his father.

If I wouldn’t have known anything, I would have assumed that that would have been him.-Chris Zuger

With the rise of AI technology and language models like ChatGPT, more people are using the technology to create digital simulations of interactions with their lost loved ones.

It ranges from VR technology reuniting a mother with her deceased daughter, to the AI image generator Midjourney mimicking a person’s appearance.

“It is something that we haven’t had in society before, and for a lot of people, it can be beneficial either directly or indirectly, like myself,” Zuger said.

Grief specialist Cheryl-Anne Cait said it’s not unusual for people to attempt to maintain attachment with loved ones following their deaths.

“If that’s a way for someone … to be able to have their loved one’s presence or their person’s presence in their life, and that supports that and that helps them, then I think that that’s fabulous,” the Wilfrid Laurier University associate professor told Galloway.

Grief and tech

Zuger said it was “unnerving” and “eerie” at first seeing ChatGPT mimicking his father’s texts.

“If I wouldn’t have known anything, I would have assumed that that would have been him,” he said.

Despite that, Zuger felt he benefited from the experience — and he thinks others who are grieving might too.

“There’s no linear path to acceptance or to not sort of getting over grief, but at least [make] it a part of yourself, that you can grow from it as an experience,” he said.

WATCH: After her best friend died, a programmer created an AI chatbot from his texts

After her best friend died, a programmer created an AI chatbot from his texts so she could speak to him again | The Machine That Feels

The project helped Eugenia Kuyda grieve. And then, it inspired her to create the virtual friend app Replika. It’s used by more than 10 million people around the world.

Preparing for death

Some people, like Hossein Rahnama, are also using the technology to make sure they can help their descendents long after their death.

Rahnama, an associate professor at the Toronto Metropolitan University, created a project called Augmented Eternity. Using either a chat bot or a visual avatar, he can pass on his expertise and knowledge to his daughters, who are currently seven and five.

“So I have my WhatsApp data, my photos, the email systems that I have. It’s all being pre-processed, but that information is now being stored locally on my device, not in a remote cloud belonging to a different company,” he said.

Two men in suits stand together, facing the camera.
Ottawa’s Chris Zuger, left, used ChatGPT to cope with his father’s death in 2022, by feeding text conversations into the language model and prompting it to respond like his dad. (Submitted by Chris Zuger )

Rahnama wants his daughters to think of the project as a reflection tool, not as a decision-making system or as a way to resurrect of the dead.

“It’s really about remembering someone when we want to and really reflect based on the memories that they have had,” he said.

For example, if you’re visiting a city for the first time and your loved one had been there before, the AI version can recall streets they walked down, or a local bakery where they bought a pastry. They may also show you images and videos of their trip.

“I want them to ask questions such as, ‘Dad, I’m in this situation. Have you had a similar experience? Tell me a story about it,'” Rahnama said. 

This makes the experience more human and less robotic or “creepy,” he said.

“It’s more like a storytelling tool rather than a conversational interface, telling them what to do and what not to do.”

Cait said she loves the idea of using passive storytelling, as it can help build a relationship between a person and their lost loved ones in later stages of their lives.

“I interviewed young women when they were in college, and then 10 years later, one of the things that they’ve said is I was never able to have a relationship with my parent as an adult,” she said.

“I think that this interface … allows you to have that relationship. It’s not the same type of relationship, but it allows you to have that connection and that attachment.”

‘It was not real’

AI isn’t a perfect solution, nor should it be a replacement for community contact while grieving a loss, Cait said.

“Grief and death is not generally spoken about in society,” she said. “It’s very individualized and can be very isolated. Even with families, it’s not necessarily spoken about.”

“I would hate to see the interface or the apps interfere with our ability to be able to create community with other people, in order to be able to talk about our person who’s not with us anymore.”

Zuger said he couldn’t fully immerse himself in the experience, knowing “that what I was talking to was essentially something that I had created.”

“It was not real. It was not actually my father,” he said.

Nevertheless, Zuger felt empowered by the experience — and he thinks his father would’ve gotten a kick out of ChatGPT if he was still around.

“He would have been extremely amazed by it,” he said. “He would try to make it do hilarious things and then show me and say this is cool.… We would have had a lot of fun with it.”

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