A funeral agency in Sweden is currently seeking volunteers for a project that it hopes will offer people comfort by allowing them to speak to their deceased loved-ones.
First of all, if you’ve already read something about this on sites like Mail Online or Sputnik News, you should know that most of the information they present is truly ‘fake news’. No, Swedish scientists are not trying to create robots or androids that are “fully conscious copies of dead relatives”, in fact, I’m not even sure any Swedish scientists are involved at all. This is actually about a Swedish funeral agency called Fenix wanting to create bots (computer programs, not actual robots) powered by artificial intelligence that can offer comfort to living relatives of the deceased.
Photo: Startup Stock Photos/Pixabay
The grossly misreported news was originally published by Swedish newspaper Dagen, six days ago. In that article, Fenix CEO, Charlotte Runius, said that the project began with their current chat bot, a relatively simple AI computer program that the company uses to answer people’s online questions about its funeral services. It’s a bot, but people interacting with it can rarely tell that they are interacting with a computer program, and not a living, breathing person. This got them thinking that the same technology could be used to comfort mourning relatives by giving them a chance to chat with their deceased loved-ones.
“It can sound like science fiction, but the technology is already there,” Runius told Dagen reporters. And she’s not wrong at all. In fact, a chatbot similar to the one Fenix is currently working on has already been created by Russian programmer Eugenia Kuyda so she could chat with her deceased best friend, fellow tech entrepreneur Roman Mazurenko, who died in a car accident.
Like Kuyda, the Fenix plans to upload information about the deceased in a computer database and use artificial intelligence to make the bot seem like a real person. Depending on the information available, it will be able to interact with a living relative of the deceased on various topics, like the weather, their favorite hobbies, how they like their coffee, etc..
However, Runius points out that the chatbot is not fully conscious, as so many media outlets are reporting, because it cannot learn anything new, but only relies on information provided by the deceased’s family members. You won’t be able to ask it anything about a new movie that just came out, for example. It’s basically just a new way of storing information about someone that has passed away. In the past, we could only rely on photographs and video to remember our lost loved-ones, but today, technology allows us to go further.
The emotional implications of such a chatbot are still unknown, and Charlotte Runius said that she would like to have a chat with representatives of the Swedish Church to discuss the issue. It’s possible that for some, interacting with AI posing as their deceased oved one could make it harder to let go and move one, while for others, it could provide necessary comfort.
“For example, for an old man who has lost his wife and feels very lonely it may be worthwhile to chat with the bot online, even if he knows it’s not really her,” the Fenix CEO said.
So far, the Fenix chatbot can only carry out conversations as text, but the funeral agency is currently looking for volunteers to offer up speech samples of their deceased relatives, so they can implement a voice mode as well, in which it would sound like that actual person. Runius added that they may add some kind of visual support to the bot in the future, to make the experience even more powerful for living relatives.