After Death, There Is the Bot
Journalist and author Andrew Kaplan is the first guinea pig of HereAfter, a startup that aims to preserve the dead as virtual avatars, raising questions about what makes a person, the changing approach to grief, and humanity’s desire to document its loved ones—and itself
In June 1967, as Israel was preparing for the military conflict that will later be known as the Six-Day War, people were frantic with fear of annihilation. The U.S. embassy called on all American citizens in the country to register so that their relatives back home could be notified in the possible case of their death, Brooklyn-born Andrew Kaplan recalled in a recent interview with Calcalist. Back then, the California resident was living in Israel, serving as a soldier in the Israeli military.
On his way to the embassy in Tel Aviv, Kaplan felt ill and made a stop at a pharmacy. Waiting in line, he heard an elderly woman ask for a large number of sleeping pills. She wanted to kill herself if the Arab armies win, she told the pharmacist. The pharmacist refused, saying it would be illegal for him to sell her the requested amount. Bearing her arm to show the pharmacist the number tattooed on it, she told him that she was a Holocaust survivor, a former prisoner at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Under no circumstances would she go through such an ordeal again, she said. After looking at her for some time, the pharmacist went into the back and returned with a box of pills. Before handing it over, he rolled up his sleeve to show her the number on his own arm.
Dadbot. Illustration: Ruth Gwily
Just a moment in time, a chance encounter, Kaplan said. “a small personal experience that goes on to shape who you are as a person. People can understand who you were through the way you tell your stories. We each have a different way of expressing ourselves.”
Often, the stories are all that remains after death. The two Holocaust survivors lived on as characters in one of the many tales Kaplan wrote throughout his career as a journalist and an author. Now, it is his own stories and experiences that are being taken a step further. Kaplan, 78, is a guinea pig in a new venture that aims to turn people into virtual avatars that will continue to exist after their death. His stories will live on, in his own image and voice, and his family would be able to communicate with his successor, the Andibot, after he is long gone.
Californian James Vlahos, 48, was a freelance technology journalist with a special interest in artificial intelligence when his father was diagnosed with cancer in 2016. Vlahos stayed by his father’s side as his health failed, and, fearing their inevitable separation, started to document his father’s final days. He built a dadbot that enabled him to converse with his father on Facebook Messenger, an initiative that received wide media coverage. As his creation progressed, Vlahos understood that his idea had commercial potential. After all, the desire to preserve loved ones is universal. Earlier this year, he joined forces with former journalist Sonia Talati to found HereAfter, a startup that creates interactive chatbots based on recorded life stories.
Kaplan’s life story is exceptional. Born to a non-zionist American family, he came to Israel in the sixties after some time spent in Europe, North Africa, and South America, “because I had heard Israeli women were very beautiful,” he said. He learned Hebrew, joined the army where he served with the paratroopers, fought on the Syrian front during the Six-Day War, and was one of the first students at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Kaplan later returned to the U.S. to study business and worked as a consultant at auto company Ford before moving to California to become a screenwriter. That did not pan out. Instead, he made a living as a content writer for local tech companies and wrote nine best-selling detective novels.
To develop and demonstrate HereAfter’s technology, Vlahos offered Kaplan the opportunity of being the company’s prototype avatar, their first subject, the man who may change humanity’s grieving processes as we know them. “A joint acquaintance told him I am the most interesting person he knows,” Kaplan explained.
HereAfter’s concept is simple. Instead of settling for memories and second-hand stories of the dear deceased, instead of listening to the same old voice messages or watching the same few home movies, the company creates a premium package: HereAfter employees will interview people about their lives, creating an audio database of the future dead and offering family members the option of asking questions and receiving answers after their relative has died. In the future, HereAfter intends to develop an app that will replace interviewers and will be able to independently ask questions, record the answers, and catalog data.
At the same time—and this is the real kicker—artificial intelligence will use the audio samples to enable people to hold a fluent conversation with their dead relatives on issues that were not part of the original material recorded, using services like Alexa and Siri. All this would be saved on the cloud and available for a monthly subscription.
Never lose someone you love, goes HereAfter’s moto. But it seems that more than people want to keep their loved ones alive, those who are about to die want to live on. Thousands of people have already approached the company asking for their memories to be recorded, according to company statements.
HereAfter’s initiative gives rise to some deep philosophical questions about what it means not to have to say goodbye, and about the fight to conserve people in a process that seems to go against the natural course of cessation. But even before the big dilemmas that conversations with the dead might bring up, smaller questions can be asked about the obsessive need humanity has to document itself.
Vlahos has previously told the Washington Post that his venture isn’t for everyone. Grief is as individual as a fingerprint, he said, but for some people, the service could provide help and support.
Kaplan, on his end, has committed himself entirely to the venture. He believes that every person is worthy of preservation, even those who appear boring on the surface. “If you call certain people boring it is because you don’t really know them and therefore cannot understand their life. We all fall in love or deal with failure. Such an intimacy-based acquaintance with a person is always interesting.”
For relatives, the memories of the dead will always be of interest. For the dying, the act of documentation and summation has meaning. “You can talk for hours, and still you will not cover all aspects of a person’s life,” Kaplan said. “You try, in this way, to pass on small pieces.”
Kaplan is excited about the possibility of people conversing with his avatar after he is gone, like the technological future Vlahos has described for HereAfter’s service. Everyone has good periods and bad periods in their lives, and the technology could prove valuable, especially during difficult times, he said. “My dad died years ago, and the possibility of talking with him, even just for five minutes, could have helped me in those difficult times when you need advice from your parents,” he said. “If that advice is also provided in a parent’s voice, it is really irreplaceable.”
Kaplan would have loved to tell his father about his own wife and son, whom he has never met. He would have loved to ask his father about his life during the great depression, and how he got through those years. He would have also asked him about the family he himself never got to know because they perished during the Holocaust, Kaplan said.
Out of that sense of loss, Kaplan sees the Andybot as the most significant gift he could give his family at his advanced age. “I believe family is a tapestry, and the threads that make it up are stories. Humans are unchanging; only the technology changes. As long as the stories are authentic, people will be interested in them.” He emphasizes the need for authenticity: “if people try hard to show how amazing and wonderful they are, it will be like Facebook, something fake. Their descendants will say ‘grandpa is bragging again, who cares.’ No one will listen.”
The stories of the elderly have always been passed down, first orally, then in writing, then in audio or video recordings. In recent years, professionals have started to record the stories of some people as a testament for future generations. HereAfter’s added value is the promise that you will be able to converse with the dead, not just listen to their words. And they are not the only ones reaching for this goal.
A technology that lets people speak with the dead does not currently exist, but there are many projects trying to get us there, Paula Kiel, an Israeli PhD student at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told Calcalist in an interview. Kiel is writing her doctorate about contemporary social constructions of death in Western societies. “The most impressive one I’ve seen so far is that of American entrepreneur Martine Rothblatt. She created BINA48, a humanoid robot based on her partner.” The idea behind BINA48 is steeped in an entire philosophy about a future world with bodiless entities that exist only in virtual space, but that advanced technology is far from being ready, she said.
Technologically speaking, it could be possible to export human consciousness to a computer one day, but the question is who would want to see it happen or make use of it, Kiel said. “When I tell people of my research, the first response is almost always ‘why would I do that?’ or ‘when I’m dead, I’m dead, what do I need to bother people for?’ Few people connect with the idea immediately,” she said.
Those who have already experienced the death of a loved one tend to have a more favorable view. “My impression is that many times, the motivation of developers in the domain is the result of personal experience with death,” Kiel said. She had spoken with a woman who launched a service for funeral management because she thought it was strange that many such services existed for weddings but none for funerals. For others, it is more emotional, a feeling of what they would do to re-experience a person that had passed on.
There are some death-related services and technologies already on offer, such as tools for bequeathing digital assets such as social network accounts with instructions on what to do with them; websites that enable dying people to prepare letters that will be sent to loved ones after their deaths; and even services that offer options for continued connection after death using database-operated triggers.
“You can arrive in New York, for example, and suddenly receive a message from your long-dead mother, telling you of her experience during a past visit she made to the city,” Kiel explained. “The phone’s GPS will identify your location and trigger the system to send a message that you didn’t know about, no matter the date it was written.” Artificial intelligence can take such technologies even further, she said—if we let it.
AI gives rise to significant ethical questions, Kiel said. “You turn your mind, in essence, into data that can be used and traded. It is no longer yours or under your control. Our life will become a product with copyright issues.”
“Will companies erase people’s consciousness because their family stopped paying membership fees? What if your consciousness is obtained by a hostile entity?” Such technologies raise questions about just how far memory and remembrance can be taken, Kiel said.
Another issue is the blurring of the lines between technology and science on one side, and mysticism and religion on the other. There is a rather direct connection between the biblical sorceress of Endor raising the ghost of Shmuel on Shaul’s behalf and Vlahos documenting Kaplan in current-day California.
There are already technologies that enable a sort of immortality, like writing, and technologies that enable interpersonal connection, but there was always hope that some new technology could connect the two, Kiel said. “When the telegraph was invented, it stunned the world and inflamed imagination because, for the first time, the physical barrier to connection was broken. So why stop at the geographical barrier without attempting to overcome the greatest barrier of all—death?”
In the 19th century, many movements tried to bring together science, religion, and mysticism. In the U.S., séance communicators and engineers banded together to develop a device called a Celestial Telegraph, Kiel said, adding that mystical terminology often borrows from technological language.
Today, there are entrepreneurs working in similar avenues. In 2015, software developer Henrique Jorge launched Eter9, an AI-based cyberspace community that builds each user a bot that learns their habits and can act in their stead after their death. Eugenia Kuyda rebuilt her best friend Roman Mazurenko as an artificial intelligence after his death, and created an app that enables others to compile a database and build up a chatbot based on their loved ones. Marius Ursache also lost a close friend and created Eternime, an artificial intelligence avatar that purports to recreate not just how a person looks and sounds, but prominent character traits, even the negative ones.
Technological advances such as photography, audiotaping, and video have already changed the way people grieve, but it seems we are nearing a very big revolution in the process, if the dead will indeed start talking back. Writer and grief expert David Kessler told the Washington Post recently that while it could help some grievers, it could cause much damage to others both psychologically and when it comes to their grip on reality. He is currently about to publish his new book, titled “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief”—because, according to him, the traditional five-stage grief model is no longer accurate.
The 20th century changed the way people deal with death, and the space it takes up in their lives, Kiel said. “In the past, death was around every corner, and people saw the dead. But then modernism taught us that death is not something you discuss or observe, that it is something that takes place in hospitals, and even there, the conversation about death is often avoided so as not to upset the dying. And after all that, in recent years, death and the dead are taking center stage in everyday life again. That’s the context for all the new technology that is now appearing.”
The technological advances being made today seem to illustrate two contrary processes that nonetheless go hand in hand: on the one side, death is being acknowledged more, and there is more flexibility in living alongside death without hiding it. On the other side, there is a growing inability to let the dead pass on—people cling to their memory, their voice, their images on a video, the fantasy of having conversations with them after they are gone.
It is possible that the more technology evolves to conserve the dead, the stronger the opposite trend will become—to let go, to set fire to the dead and scatter their ashes in the sea, to choose to remain only with that which is within the heart, and not the cloud.