In China, artificial intelligence speaks to the deceased – FRANCE 24

Taizhou (China) (AFP) – In a cemetery in eastern China, Seakoo Wu hears the voice of her late son on her phone. It is not a record of the period of his life: when he speaks, it is thanks to artificial intelligence.

“I know that because of me you suffer a lot every day and that you feel guilty and helpless,” the late Xuanmo said in a slightly robotic voice.

“Even if I can never be by your side again, my spirit is still in this world and accompanies you through life.”

Like Mr. Wu and his wife, more and more grieving Chinese are using artificial intelligence (AI) to restore some semblance of life to their lost loved ones.

“As soon as we synchronize reality and the metaverse, I will have my son with me again,” assures Mr. Wu.

Several Chinese companies have moved into this niche of virtual mourning: some say they have created thousands of “digital people,” sometimes from just a 30-second video of the deceased.

“Ghost Bots”

Saekoo and his wife’s lives were turned upside down last year when their only son died of a stroke at the age of 22.

He studied finance and accounting at the University of Exeter, UK. As an athlete, “he had a busy life,” Saekoo says.

Seakoo Wu and his wife in front of the grave of their late son Wu Xuanmo, November 7, 2023 at a cemetery in eastern China © Hector RETAMAL / AFP

The rise of ChatGPT-like conversation robots in China has given the devastated father a new hope: the virtual revival of his son.

He collected photos, videos and audio recordings of Xuanmo. He then spent thousands of dollars with AI companies to clone his child’s face and voice.

If the results remain rudimentary, Saekoo doesn’t want to stop there: Equipped with a file he compiled that contains an astronomical amount of information about his son, he relies on algorithms to reproduce the way he thinks and speaks.

The phenomenon of these “ghost bots” does not only exist in China, there are companies in this niche in particular in the USA.

But “in artificial intelligence technology, China is among the best in the world,” says Zhang Zewei, founder of Super Brain, a company specializing in this technology, and a former employee of Saekoo Wu.

Zhang Zewei, founder of the brain technology company Super Brain "Ghostbots"and former employee of Saekoo Wu, during an interview with AFP, November 8, 2023 in Jiangyin, east China

Zhang Zewei, founder of ghost bot technology company Super Brain and former employee of Saekoo Wu, during an interview with AFP, November 8, 2023 in Jiangyin, east China. China © Hector RETAMAL / AFP

“And there is such a population in China, many of them in emotional distress, that this gives us a market advantage,” assures this man who lives in Jingjiang (east).

According to Mr. Zhang, Super Brain charges 10,000 to 20,000 yuan (1,300 to 2,600 euros) to create a basic avatar in about 20 days.

His clients include not only those grieving, but also parents frustrated by not spending enough time with their children… or even a heartbroken lover who wants to see his ex-girlfriend again.

Zhang Zewei, founder of Super Brain Company, creates an artificial intelligence demonstration video on his laptop on November 8, 2023 in Jiangyin, east China

Zhang Zewei, founder of Super Brain company, creates an artificial intelligence demonstration video on his laptop, November 8, 2023 in Jiangyin, east China © Hector RETAMAL/AFP

The services offered include a video call with an agent whose face and voice are replaced with that of the desired person.

“It is of enormous importance to our society, even to the whole world,” Zhang said. “A digital version of someone (can) exist forever, even if their body is no longer there.”

approval

Sima Huapeng, founder of Silicon Intelligence in Nanjing (East), is convinced: This technology represents “a new kind of humanism”.

He compares it to portraits or photographs, which in their time revolutionized the way people could remember those who died.

Zhang Zewei, founder of Super Brain Company, creates an artificial intelligence demonstration video on his laptop on November 8, 2023 in Jiangyin, east China

Zhang Zewei, founder of Super Brain company, creates an artificial intelligence demonstration video on his laptop, November 8, 2023 in Jiangyin, east China © Hector RETAMAL/AFP

These virtual doppelgängers can provide some comfort, recognizes Tal Morse, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Death and Society at Britain’s University of Bath. But we still need to know what psychological and ethical impact they will have.

“A central question here is (…) to what extent these ghost bots are ‘faithful’ to the personality they are supposed to imitate,” he says.

Because “what happens when they do things that +pollute+ the memory of the person they are supposed to represent?”

And how can we know whether the deceased person would have really consented?

Any new technology is “double-edged,” admits Super Brain’s Mr. Zhang. But “as long as we help those who need it, I don’t see a problem.”

Zhang Zewei, founder of Super Brain Company, is filmed by a colleague to make an artificial intelligence demonstration video in Jiangyin, east China, November 8, 2023

Zhang Zewei, founder of Super Brain company, is filmed by a colleague making an artificial intelligence demonstration video in Jiangyin, east China, November 8, 2023 © Hector RETAMAL/AFP

He says he does not work with those for whom the experience could have a negative impact, citing the case of a woman who attempted suicide after the death of her daughter.

Xuanmo “probably would have agreed” to be brought back to life virtually, his father says.

“One day, my son, we will all meet in the metaverse,” he says as his wife cries in front of his grave. “Technology is improving day by day (…) it’s just a matter of time.”