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This year is shaping up to be the year of artificial intelligence. ChatGPT has stolen most of the headlines, but it is only the most infamous in a wide assortment AI platforms. One of the most recent to arrive on the scene is HereAfter AI, an app that can “preserve memories with an app that interviews you about your life.” The goal: to “let loved ones hear meaningful stories by chatting with the virtual you.” Heaven, not in the clouds, but the cloud. Nirvana on your iPhone. Reincarnation through silicon.
The problem is, it won’t work. Can’t work, in fact.
At this point, no one doubts we can use AI to simulate a generic person, or even a particular person. But this could only ever be a simulation, not the real deal. The reason doesn’t have to do with the technical limitations of AI. It rather has to do with the fact that humans are not disembodied souls or pure spirits that could be uploaded to a computer in the first place. Our bodies are not only biological realities–they are a crucial part of who we are.
A couple examples bring the point home: if you are a dancer or an athlete or a musician, you know that when you dance a tango or go in for a layup or run an arpeggio, you think with your body. If you try to think with your head (“first step there, just like so”), you’ll trip up. That’s why I can’t dance —I overthink it. Eliminate the body by putting me on an app, and you’ve eliminated what made me me in the first place.
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Even if it were possible to upload loved ones to a computer, it isn’t clear that this would be something we would want. When we lose a loved one, we would do anything to have that person back with us. That’s a natural human desire. But think through what it would mean never to lose anyone, to always have our loved ones in an app, ready for consultation. Not only our parents and grandparents would be part of our lives, but multiple generations of great-grandparents as well. That may be good—it may be, well, strange. But there’s no question it would be different than anything we’ve ever experienced. Imagine the conversations around the Thanksgiving table. Interesting? Absolutely. Something we deeply desire? Not as clear.
There are also problems for HereAfter AI that come directly from how AI is created. To create an AI, one of the first steps is “training”: feeding the model massive amounts of data. The model then looks for patterns in these data to transform them into something new. The more training data; the better the model. That’s why Facebook and Twitter and the others are data-hungry: the more data they gather, the better their models become. And it is why ChatGPT is such a powerful form of AI: it was trained on massive amounts of data. As in: all of Wikipedia, millions of ebooks, and snapshots of the entire internet.
Here’s the issue: in creating an AI to mimic those we’ve lost, we’ll need to train the model. How do we do that? HereAfter AI has the answer: feed the model text threads, personal letters, emails, home videos: the list goes on. As with all models, more data means a better model. The closer you come to bringing back someone you love.
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How many of us, though, in attempting to bring back a loved one, would feed HereAfter AI all the snarky things a loved one said? The times grandma didn’t give us the benefit of the doubt? The times a spouse spouted conspiracy theories or garbled words or just plain got things wrong? The times a child lied? Not much of that, I’m guessing. Train it on the happy times instead.
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But a model, of course, is only as good as its training data. Any “person” we’ve created using only happy data will be but a shiny veneer of a genuine human being. All of us have bumps and warts, failings and shortcomings, biases, and blindspots. That’s part of being human. Sometimes our shortcomings are our most endearing parts: my family loves me because and not despite my quirks and limitations. Remove the bumps and warts, and you haven’t created a human at all. You’ve instead created a saccharine caricature, dressed in a skin that resembles someone you used to know.
In the Harry Potter series, Albus Dumbledore reflects on Lord Voldemort’s quest for immortality: “humans do have a knack for choosing precisely those things that are worst for them.” HereAfter AI is no Lord Voldemort, but they’ve made the same mistake. Life on an app–for either you or your loved ones–is not heaven. It’s not something we even want. What is it? Impossible.