The Digital Afterlife: Using Technology for Grief and Memory
As we navigate loss in the digital age, we are left with fragments of conversations archived forever in chat logs and social media profiles. While some find comfort in revisiting these online archives, others turn to more advanced technology to keep their loved ones alive in digital form.
In 2016, James Vlahos found out his father was dying of terminal lung cancer. He hastened to collect memories while he still could, recording his father’s life story, everything from childhood memories to his favorite sayings, songs, and jokes. Once transcribed, these recordings filled 200 pages.
Not content with these static memories, Vlahos spent a year programming a chatbot replica of his father called the “Dadbot.” The AI chatbot was able to relive his father’s stories through text messages, audio, images, and video, creating an interactive experience that emulated the unique nuances of his father.
Inspired by this experience, Vlahos went on to create HereAfter AI, a company that allows people to upload their memories which become an “avatar of life” for their loved ones to interact with after they pass away. The app requires consent and is based exclusively on the content users provide, ensuring accuracy and authenticity.
While these AI avatars can be beneficial to the grieving process, there is a risk that they will keep us clinging to the past, unable to move forward and grow. Multiple studies have shown that proximity-seeking behaviors are associated with poorer mental health outcomes. It can prevent someone from forging a new identity without the deceased or from establishing meaningful new relationships.
However, Vlahos notes that our quest to move on does not necessarily mean forgetting a loved one. Indeed, technology can enable us to have richer, more present, and high-fidelity memories of someone.
As we grapple with the complexities of digital afterlife, it is essential to focus on the present and make the most of our time with loved ones before we turn to dust and pixels. Technology can preserve memories, but ultimately, it is the memories we make today that matter the most.