The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

AI’s new frontier: Connecting grieving loved ones with the deceased

Scientists are using tech platforms and virtual reality to create avatars, chatbots and more to help people still mourning

(Rebekka Dunlap for The Washington Post)

In 2020, a Korean documentary team invited on its show a mother who had lost her 7-year-old daughter to an incurable disease. The girl’s death was so sudden — she died a week after being diagnosed in 2016 — the mother, Jang Ji-Sun, did not have a chance to say goodbye. For three years she was obsessed with the loss of her daughter.

The producers of the documentary, “Meeting You,” created a digitized re-creation of the child that the mother could see through a virtual reality headset (the TV audience was also able to see the image of the daughter).

On the show, the virtual girl, Na-yeon, appeared from behind a woodpile and runs toward her mother, calling, “Mom.” The mother burst into tears and said, “Mom missed you so much, Na-yeon.” A video of the show reportedly received 19 million views. While the experience was painful, the mother told the Korean Times that she would do it again if she could; she finally got a chance to say goodbye.

In "Meeting You," a Korean TV documentary, Jang Ji-Sun virtually embraces a digitized re-creation of her 7-year-old daughter who died in 2016. (Video: MBC)

“I was worried how the mother would react” to the digitized daughter, the producer of the documentary, Kim Jong-woo, told the newspaper. “No matter how hard we tried to make the character similar, she still can tell the difference. But she said she was happy to see even the slight reflection of Na-yeon.”

People have always craved post-death contact with their loved ones. Efforts to remain in touch with the dead have existed for eons, such as photographing deceased children, holding seances and even keeping a corpse in the house for posterity. But artificial intelligence and virtual reality, along with other technological advances, have taken us a huge step closer to bringing the dead back to life.

“It’s something that’s very fundamental to humans, to keep a connection to something they loved,” said Sherman Lee, a psychology associate professor at the Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., and director of the Pandemic Grief Project.

How to be a widow: A guide from a wife who doesn’t know either

A continuing bond with a loved one — such as by listening to old voice mails, watching old videos and engaging with chatbots that can speak in a loved one’s voice — can bring comfort. But it also can exacerbate the grief, particularly for those whose loved ones died by suicide, as people relive the loss anew, research shows.

“If you’re asking me, Is watching videos of your deceased spouse every night a helpful thing to do, instead of re-engaging the world again and spending that time with friends and family? No, I don’t think it’s helpful,” Lee said. “But that said, would it be helpful to smash all of the videos and lock them up in a room? That’s going to make the grieving process worse.”

Science has definitely taken an interest in connecting the bereaved with their loved ones.

For instance, Hossein Rahnama, a professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and a research affiliate with MIT Media Lab, has been building a platform called Augmented Eternity, which allows someone to create a digital persona from a dead person’s photos, texts, emails, social media posts, public statements and blog entries that will be able to interact with relatives and others.

To make reliable predictions of what the deceased might have said, the models need vast amounts of data. Rahnama said that will work well for millennials, who post everything they do on the internet, but less well for older people who aren’t as online focused or savvy. Rahnama receives emails almost weekly from people who are terminally ill, asking if there is a way to conserve their legacy for their loved ones. He said he now has a beta group of 25 people testing his product. His goal is for consumers to one day be able to create their own eternal digital entities.

In June, Amazon unveiled a new feature it’s developing for Alexa, in which the virtual assistant can read aloud stories in a deceased loved one’s voice after just hearing a minute of that person’s speech. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) “While AI can’t eliminate that pain of loss, it can definitely make their memories last,” said Rohit Prasad, senior vice president and head scientist for Amazon Alexa.

And several entrepreneurs in the AI sphere, including James Vlahos of HereAfter AI and Eugenia Kuyda, who co-founded AI start-ups Luka and Replika, have turned their efforts toward virtual representations of people, using data from their digital footprint to craft an avatar or chatbot that can interact with family members after they’ve passed.

HereAfter’s app takes users through an interview process before they’ve died, prompting them to recollect stories and memories that are then recorded. After they’ve passed, family members can ask questions, and the app responds in the deceased’s voice using the accumulated interview information, almost like it’s engaging in a conversation.

Vlahos, HereAfter’s chief executive, said he was motivated to start the company after building a chatbot — or Dadbot as he calls it — from about a dozen hour-long recordings he made of his father after his dad was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 2016.

Vlahos transcribed those conversations and gathered his own memories of his dad. He then used a software platform called PullString to program the Dadbot. Vlahos spent a year inputting strings of conversation and teaching the bot to interpret what people said to it. When sent a message or asked a question, the Dadbot would respond similarly to how his father would, either with a text message, audio of a story or song, or even a photo.

He chats with the Dadbot every month or so, whenever he wants to hear his voice. One time, he went to a spot where his father’s ashes were scattered, overlooking Memorial Stadium at the University of California’s Berkeley campus, where his father rarely missed a football game, and asked the Dadbot to sing him a Cal spirit song, which it then did.

Vlahos said the Dadbot doesn’t make him miss his father any less. “But I do love that he can feel more present to me, with the aspects of his personality that I love so much less clouded by the passage of time,” he said.

How mourning can affect us mentally and even physically — including blood pressure and the immune system

Kuyda created a chatbot of a dear friend and roommate, Roman Mazurenko, for a similar reason. She and Mazurenko had moved from Moscow to the United States in 2015 and were living together in San Francisco when, on a brief trip back home, Mazurenko was killed by a hit-and-run driver. At the time, her company Luka was building chatbot-based virtual assistants. After Mazurenko died, Kuyda decided to use the 10,000 text messages she and Mazurenko had exchanged — as well as texts Mazurenko had sent to others — to create a digital version of him.

Their communications were just text messages on a messenger app, but to those who knew Mazurenko, his responses on the app were spot on. They sounded just like him because they largely were his responses, but made at another time in another context.

“It was just nice to be able to remember him in a special way and to be able to talk to him like we did before,” she said.

The company made the app, called Roman Mazurenko, publicly available, and people who didn’t even know him began downloading it and texting him. Some reached out to the company requesting that it make bots of their own loved ones.

She was 30 at the time, and he was the first important person in her life to die. She struggled with how someone so ever-present was no longer there. It was like he never existed, she said. “For me, to be able to get back to him, to continue to have the communication we had before, it was sort of therapeutic,” she said. Five years later, she still texts with his chatbot every week or two.

Psychologists say creating a virtual copy of a lost loved one can be therapeutic, especially in cases with unresolved issues, but could it lead to someone wanting to remain in this virtual world of their loved one?

My once-vibrant husband died of ALS, and my complicated grief is deep

“By giving somebody the ability to see their loved one again, is that going to give them some solace, or is it going to become like an addiction?” says clinical psychologist Albert “Skip” Rizzo, director of Medical Virtual Reality at the Institute for Creative Technologies and a research professor at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

Grief therapists sometimes invite people to have an imaginary conversation with the deceased, or to write a letter or role play with the therapists. With digital recreations of the dead, particularly in virtual reality, the experience would be more immersive.

Why people want to hold on to their loved ones is understandable.

One of our basic drives is to attach to others, particularly those who provide a secure base, like a parent for a child, said Robert Neimeyer, director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition. “These are among our strongest evolutionary imperatives, as beings, and our technologies are recruited to support that goal,” he said.

After the telephone was invented, he said, Thomas Edison was interested in developing a “spirit phone” to somehow communicate with the dead. And seeing a photograph of a deceased son who died at the Gettysburg battle during the Civil War was just as uncanny an experience for a parent then as it is for that mother in the video to see her dead daughter in virtual reality, Neimeyer said.

“What is surreal in one era quickly becomes conventional in the next,” he said. “In general, in life, we don’t grow as people by eliminating who we have loved, how we have loved what we have loved. It’s a question of holding on differently. How can we use this relationship as a resource? I think the technology can contribute to that.”

The logistics of death can be overwhelming. New apps can offer help.

Read more from Well+Being

Well+Being shares news and advice for living well every day. Sign up for our newsletter to get tips directly in your inbox.

Coronavirus vaccines can affect periods, a study showed, confirming what many women had been saying.

Normal marital hatred is real, and here are some ways to respond to it.

Is coffee or tea better for you?

Even if you exercise, sitting all day can cause health problems.

There are many things beyond our control, and these 8 ways can help you feel less anxious about them.