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SYFY WIRE Artificial Intelligence

Talking to the dead? Microsoft's AI chatbot idea feels straight out of Black Mirror

By Benjamin Bullard
Apple MacBook laptop

The Rise of Skywalker probably didn’t have this in mind when its opening scroll proclaimed “The dead speak!” In a move that feels more Black Mirror than Star Wars, Microsoft is reportedly working on a chatbot technology that could simulate voices and verbal mannerisms to allow users — whoever they might be — to pay a virtual visit with their dearly-departed loved ones.

Via The Independent, the tech giant reportedly has patented an AI-enabled chatbot software that would rely only on the artifacts of a person’s life, as it learns how to recreate the way that person sounds and converses. “The specific person [being emulated] 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,” the patent states.

In other words, the technology doesn’t need to interact with an actual living person in order to learn how he or she might carry on a conversation. Instead, it’s designed to play doppelgänger using only the bits and pieces that’ve been left behind — “images, voice data, social media posts, electronic messages,” and other personal information that helps the artificial intelligence form a recreated version of the person it’s representing.

That kind of technology no doubt might find plenty of uses beyond allowing a grieving friend or family member to commune, in a manner of speaking, with their deceased loved one. Microsoft’s patent language even nods in that direction with its mention of “a fictional character” and “a historical figure.” But in an age when entertainment is increasingly preoccupied with sci-fi conundrums that put computer brains in human-like, emotional roles, it’s not hard to see how some might find it tempting to keep the conversation going with a familiar voice that can’t be reached any other way…even when they know it’s not the real thing.

Black Mirror put its own take on just such a concept with its Season 2 episode “Be Right Back,” which featured a bereft woman (played by Hayley Atwell) welcoming into her life an AI-powered, android version of her boyfriend (played by Domhnall Gleeson), whose recent death in a car accident had left her in a coping crisis.

The show left things on a bittersweet note; one that acknowledged the real comfort that even a stand-in, synthetic boyfriend was able to provide. But it also ended with the android being stashed away in the closet like just another tool, to be rolled out only on special occasions. The dystopian unease of opening your heart to an AI facsimile was palpable in the episode, and it could be just one of many real-world dilemmas that might emerge with the arrival of similar tech.

Then again, Microsoft AI programs manager Tim O’Brien took to Twitter on Friday to reassure the world that, despite all the viral buzz about talking with the dead, the company currently has “no plan for this.” So while the real-world technology inches closer to making a convincing chatbot out of people who aren’t there, you’ll still only be able to experience it in science fiction…at least for now.