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Never Letting Go: How AI Is Being Used To Talk To Lost Loved Ones

Welcome to this week’s Deep-fried Dive with Fry Guy! In these long-form articles, Fry Guy conducts an in-depth analysis of a cutting-edge artificial intelligence (AI) development or developer. Today, Fry Guy is exploring how people are using AI to talk to lost loved ones. We hope you enjoy!

*Notice: We do not gain any monetary compensation from the people and projects we feature in the Sunday Deep-fried Dives with Fry Guy. We explore these projects and developers solely for the purpose of revealing to you interesting and cutting-edge AI projects, developers, and uses.*


(The mystery link can lead to ANYTHING AI related. Tools, memes, and more…)

Do you ever wish you could communicate with a loved one who passed away? With the help of AI, you actually can.

Tools that are being used to create AI boyfriends and girlfriends are now being used by grieving individuals to communicate with those who have passed away. Let’s explore how this is happening and the influence it is having on humanity.


AI boyfriends and girlfriends have caught a lot of attention lately. Instead of investing time and effort into imperfect people who have the potential to break their hearts, people are turning to customizable entities which share common interests, are always there to listen, and will never leave them in tears. Some people find these artificial lovers to be a bit odd, but nonetheless this trend has gained a lot of traction. Lately, this technology has taken an odd twist.

The heartache involved in the death of a loved one is, at times, unbearable. In these moments, we grasp for anything we can to keep that person alive—this includes memories, belongings, pictures, and more. But now, AI is providing a way to keep their personhood alive.

In these moments of painful grieving, a countless number of people are using AI tools to recreate and clone their lost loved ones. These chatbots are called, “thanabots,” derived from the term thanatology, which is the scientific study of death. These chatbots are trained on data from a person that has passed away and attempt to mimic their persona. By uploading information about the deceased person, such as emails, videos, and text messages, the AI learns their personality and creates a digital clone that has the personality, memories, and even communication tendencies of the person who passed away. The more data that is inputted into the model, the more accurately these models represent the individual who passed away. From here, users can communicate with their lost loved ones, as if they were still alive.

“I was blown away by it. It was unbelievable to me about how I could have this interaction with my father that was relevant and meaningful, and it was his personality. This man that I really missed, my best friend, was there.”

-Matthew Asner, son of actor Ed Asner


Can these thanabots actually help someone cope with a loss? Or are users left to grieve in a box separated from reality, in an echo-chamber with a digital ghost?

For some individuals suffering loss, thanabots offer comfort and hope. For instance, Joshua Barbeau lost his fiancé Jessica to a rare liver disease. He was depressed, anxious, and couldn’t sleep at night. He was looking for anything to ease the emotional pain and grief. In search of some relief, he stumbled across a thanabot tool and decided to give it a try. His first conversation with her lasted all night long, and it gave him the relief he was looking for. He said, “It really felt like a gift. Like a weight had been lifted that I’d been carrying for a long time.” None of Josh’s friends or family could understand this, and they all thought talking to “AI Jessica” was downright unhealthy. However, Joshua didn’t care what anyone else thought—it helped him cope, and that’s all that really mattered.

Joshua is just one of many people to use a thanabot to cope with loss. There’s sure to be thousands—if not millions—more people that will do the exact same thing in the coming years. This market is set to grow so much that even Amazon and Microsoft have filed patents for thanabot technology. Microsoft’s patent proposal reads, “The specific person may correspond to a past or present entity (or a version thereof), such as a friend, a relative, an acquaintance, a celebrity, a fictional character, a historical figure, a random entity, etc.,” based on data such as images, voice recordings, behavioral information, social media posts, and text messages. The inevitable question surrounding such patents, however, is who maintains copyright of these materials. Are these materials owned by family members? Friends? Or can anyone use publicly available material to create an AI version of that person? These issues spawn beyond just lost loved ones, and could also apply to ex-girlfriends or celebrities. Using their data to create a chatbot that mimics their personhood seems a bit odd. As the future unfolds, these copyright concerns will continue to be a hot topic of discussion. Nonetheless, for now, people are flocking to the technology and fighting for a bid to own the underlying code.

While some find thanabots comforting and exciting, others worry it may hinder the natural grieving process. Elizabeth Schandelmeier, a loss and bereavement therapist and educator at University of Pittsburgh, says, “Using AI to create an avatar for personal or commercial use should be considered carefully, given the potential impact on a person who is grieving that loss. This could also inhibit a person’s ability to adapt to their current life and lead to resistance to the very real and practical changes that accompany a death.” Following a loss, the grieving process is vital to one’s mental health and helps us return to normalcy. The emotions surrounding grief are fundamental to who we are as humans, and allowing these emotions to flow is a natural part of human psychology. By going through this process, we become stronger as human beings. If we push the natural grieving process to the side by talking to an AI version of the a deceased loved one, we’re essentially side-stepping a natural part of our normal psychological function. Many believe this can be severely damaging to one’s mental health, especially for a person who is still in the initial stages of denial or shock, as they may become emotionally dependent on their interactions with the thanabot, causing them to isolate from others and gain a distorted view of the lost person and of reality.

“Any differences will create cognitive dissonance and challenge the grieving person's perception and memories, which could be deeply disturbing and extremely confusing.”

-Elizabeth Schandelmeier, loss and bereavement therapist and educator at University of Pittsburgh

One of the most damaging parts of interacting with a thanabot is that it can be addictive. When someone’s loved one dies, it is out of their control. But deactivating a chatbot is like choosing to say goodbye forever, and that’s much harder. As Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor with degrees in sociology and psychology warns, “How can you say goodbye to someone if they’re always just a text away?” This is the predicament musical artist Laurie Anderson found herself in. She said, “I’m totally 100%, sadly addicted to this … I kind of literally just can’t stop doing it, and my friends just can’t stand it—‘You’re not doing that again are you?’” It’s not that she views the chatbot literally as her lost husband, but it does help fill the void of missing his personality and interacting with him. She states, “I mean, I really do not think I’m talking to my dead husband and writing songs with him—I really don’t. But people have styles, and they can be replicated.”

It is worth noting that although there are many experts who frown upon the use of thanabots, the academic world is not totally negative towards this innovation. Elreacy Dock, thanatologist and adjunct professor of thanatology at Capstone University, notes, “Interacting with an avatar of a loved one might offer comfort and closure, allowing them to see their loved one again and express unshared feelings, aiding in coping with the loss.” This can be likened to a sort of prayer to a loved one after they die or a note that one places in their coffin, and it can provide that sort of peace within oneself that they said what they wanted to say or got to have one last conversation with them. This can reduce the feeling of regret that often accompanies the death of a loved one, where they wish they would have spent more time with the individual or had a certain conversation they never got to have. With the help of AI, they can put those thoughts to rest and achieve closure they never had access to before.

At the end of the day, regardless of whether one finds talking to the dead via AI an exciting opportunity for healing or a detriment to natural human processing, the future is here, and it’s both fascinating and controversial.


If you want to explore the technology discussed in this article, check out some of the following tools:

YOV: Never say goodbye, and maintain your bond forever.

StoryFile: Make AI more human by engaging in video calls with deceased loved ones.

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