Scripted snippets like this seemed stilted and eerie, but as we went on, with my mom recounting memories and speaking in her own words, “she” seemed much more relaxed and natural.
Yet this conversation and those that followed were limited. When I tried to ask my mom’s robot what her favorite jewelry was, for example, I got, “Sorry, I didn’t understand. You can try asking another way or move on to another topic.
There were also mistakes that were shocking to the point of hilarity. One day, dad’s robot asked me how I was doing. I replied, “I feel sad today.” He replied with a “Good!” cheerful and optimistic.
The overall experience was undeniably bizarre. Every time I talked to their virtual versions, I thought to myself that I could have talked to my real parents instead. On one occasion, my husband mistook my tests with the bots for an actual phone call. When he realized that wasn’t the case, he rolled his eyes, scoffed, and shook his head, like I was completely deranged.
Earlier this year, I received a demo of similar technology from a five-year-old startup called StoryFile, which promises to take things to the next level. Its Life service records responses on video rather than voice alone.
You can choose from hundreds of questions for the topic. Then you record the person answering the questions; this can be done on any device with a camera and microphone, including a smartphone, although the higher quality the recording, the better the result. After downloading the files, the company turns them into a digital version of the person you can see and talk to. It can only answer the questions it was programmed to do, much like HereAfter, just with video.
StoryFile CEO Stephen Smith demonstrated the technology in a video call, where we were joined by his mother. She died earlier this year, but here she is on the phone, sitting in a comfortable chair in her living room. For a brief moment, I could only see it, shared through Smith’s screen. She was sweet, with wispy hair and friendly eyes. She gave life advice. She seemed wise.
Smith told me that his mother had “attended” his own funeral: “At the end she said, ‘I guess that’s from me… goodbye!’ and everyone burst into tears. He told me that his digital participation was well received by his family and friends. And, arguably most important of all, Smith said he was deeply heartened that he was able to film his mother before she passed.