HomeTechAI chatbots of dead people risk 'digitally haunting' the living

AI chatbots of dead people risk ‘digitally haunting’ the living

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AI ‘deadbots’ pose a serious risk to grieving relatives, researchers say (Picture: Getty)

Artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots which mimic the language and personalities of dead people risk ‘digitally haunting’ the living, a researcher has warned.

Some companies are already offering to ‘bring grandma back to life’ by offering users the chance to upload their dead relatives’ conversations and digital footprint into a chatbot.

Such services could be marketed at parents or terminally ill children, or to still-healthy people who wish to catalogue their life and leave behind a digital legacy.

But researchers at Cambridge University say that the AI chatbots – known as deadbots – are a ‘high risk’ endeavour which could cause users lasting psychological harm and fundamentally disrespect the rights of the deceased.

AI researcher Dr Tomasz Hollanek, from the Leverhulme Centre, said: ‘It is vital that digital afterlife services consider the rights and consent not just of those they recreate, but those who will have to interact with the simulations.

‘These services run the risk of causing huge distress to people if they are subjected to unwanted digital hauntings from alarmingly accurate AI recreations of those they have lost.

‘The potential psychological effect, particularly at an already difficult time, could be devastating.’

‘Deadbots’ can be made from scraping a person’s digital footprint (Picture: Getty Images)

The study, published in the journal Philosophy and Technology, highlights the potential for companies to use deadbots to surreptitiously advertise products to users in the manner of a departed loved one, or distress children by insisting a dead parent is still ‘with you’.

The researchers say that when the living sign up to be virtually re-created after they die, resulting chatbots could be used by companies to spam surviving family and friends with unsolicited notifications, reminders and updates about the services they provide – akin to being digitally ‘stalked by the dead’.

Even those who take initial comfort from a deadbot may get drained by daily interactions that become an ‘overwhelming emotional weight’, the study’s authors argue, yet they may also be powerless to have an AI simulation suspended if their now-deceased loved one signed a lengthy contract with a digital afterlife service.

Study co-author Dr Katarzyna Nowaczyk-Basinska said: ‘Rapid advancements in generative AI mean that nearly anyone with internet access and some basic know-how can revive a deceased loved one.

‘This area of AI is an ethical minefield.

‘It’s important to prioritise the dignity of the deceased, and ensure that this isn’t encroached on by financial motives of digital afterlife services, for example.

‘At the same time, a person may leave an AI simulation as a farewell gift for loved ones who are not prepared to process their grief in this manner.

Researchers say the subject is an ‘ethical minefield’ (Picture: Getty Images)

‘The rights of both data donors and those who interact with AI afterlife services should be equally safeguarded.’

The researchers say that platforms offering to recreate the dead with AI for a small fee already exist, such as Project December, which started out harnessing GPT models before developing its own systems, and apps including HereAfter.

Similar services have also begun to emerge in China, according to the study.

Dr Hollanek said people ‘might develop strong emotional bonds with such simulations, which will make them particularly vulnerable to manipulation’.

He said that ways of ‘retiring deadbots in a dignified way should be considered’, which ‘may mean a form of digital funeral’.

‘We recommend design protocols that prevent deadbots being utilised in disrespectful ways, such as for advertising or having an active presence on social media,’ he added.

The researchers recommend age restrictions for deadbots, and also call for ‘meaningful transparency’ to ensure users are consistently aware that they are interacting with an AI.

They also called for design teams to prioritise opt-out protocols that allow potential users terminate their relationships with deadbots in ways that provide emotional closure.

Dr Nowaczyk-Basinska said: ‘We need to start thinking now about how we mitigate the social and psychological risks of digital immortality, because the technology is already here.’

Get in touch with our news team by emailing us at webnews@metro.co.uk.

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