AI avatars? I'm dead against the idea of digitally resurrecting my loved ones

Despite the rise in demand for digital clones of the deceased, it's where I draw the line

Some mourners are turning to AI to bring their loved ones back to life in digital form. Getty Images
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Death rituals – how we dispose of people’s physicality and aim to keep their spirituality alive – are often studied as markers of a society’s core values and beliefs. As we begin immortalising our dead with wraithlike AI avatars, I wonder what future civilisations will determine about what our society holds dear.

SenseTime – a leading AI company in China – harnessed its powers earlier this year to allow its recently passed chief executive, Tang Xiao’ou, to speak at a company conference. More recently, a Chinese fan used footage of Qiao Renliang, a singer who died by suicide in 2016, to create an avatar version of his idol, much to the pain of the deceased’s parents. And if the online services are to be believed, almost anyone can create an animated avatar of another person for as little as 20 yuan, or Dh11.

Perhaps, having been fed enough data, a phantom version of me (albeit non-sentient) will be around to know exactly what future humans determine. But if present-day Hayley had to take a punt, it seems perfectly in line for highly nostalgic post-internet generations and reflective of a society that’s grown increasingly self-obsessed in the age of social media. Fitting within a digital landscape where corruption and scandal are quickly mitigated by shareable, smirk-inducing memes.

But when it comes to AI resurrections, where is the line between an act of grief and disregard for the universal etiquette of letting the dead rest in peace? And are we OK with stepping over that line?

I get it; grief is tricky, no matter how it creeps up on you, whether it's a long time coming or out of the blue; over a full life lived or cut too short; be it over a parent, child, pet or parasocial relation; to mourn death, illness or heartbreak.

But grief isn’t supposed to be easy.

The passing of my cousin last year brought forth a cascade of emotions, far from easy to navigate. From the initial shock to the heavy weight of grief, each stage lingered. Like countless others who have experienced loss, my family grappled with the emptiness that now occupied the once lively seat at the dinner table.

It’s hard to digest the idea of never seeing their (three-dimensional) smile again or hearing the reverberations of their laughter bounce off the walls. Instead, you are left to share verbal memories with friends, siblings or even, in extremely tragic cases, parents left behind in the throes of loss.

There’s no severity chart for grief, but if there were, I’m sure losing a child would be right up there. And grief, when we’re in the stage of anger, denial or bargaining, can make us do odd, sometimes extreme things. Case in point, earlier this year, Taiwanese singer Bao Xiaobai turned to technology to reconnect with his daughter, 22, who died in 2022. With just one audio recording of her speaking in English as the original sample, he created a video of her supposedly singing Happy Birthday to her mother. Xiaobai reportedly spent over a year working with AI technology to master this feat.

And when I think about it like that – a desperate need to make it through the most difficult of times – then maybe an AI substitute isn’t so bad. Those in mourning already pore over old social media posts and claw at anecdotes from anyone their beloved has ever crossed paths with, hoping for new character-reaffirming insights. What’s so different about uploading data, pictures and videos to pore over them in AI form – the avatar version of them?

But that’s just it – it's a version of them. One stuck in time then layered with artificial experiences. Ultimately, bringing back my cousin, my beloved aunt or a dear friend who passed away wouldn’t change their sudden end. It would merely be a self-serving tool to help me get by. Absolve me of guilt, offer me comfort, keep me company.

To me, when you love somebody, you want to grow alongside them, experience things together and share life in tandem. Aren’t we doing our dead loved ones a disservice by dragging their digital apparition along for the ride?

Some wounds you just can’t plaster over. While I understand the desire, I can’t see myself looking for the deceased in a digital format.

I’m no therapist, but I'm sure there's something about acceptance in those stages of grief. Coming to terms with (physical) reality, letting go of what was and how things were. Moving forward. As tempting as it is to tap into the powers of AI to postpone that process, I’m not sure a novelty version of those I've loved and lost would do me any good, really.

Published: May 03, 2024, 6:02 PM
Updated: May 06, 2024, 9:29 AM