How Tech Can Bring Our Loved Ones to Life After They Die | WSJ
- So let's have a chat then. Through history, we've sort of moved the goalposts of what does it mean to be alive, what does it mean to be dead? This is a furthest pushing of that boundary. We're really a multi-decade experiment.
And whether it's possible to upload human consciousness, maybe with this digital technology, death will be when your information is no longer organized or accessible. - Is immortality possible? - Well, I certainly fear death. I hate the idea of someone erasing my hard drives and just wiping me off the planet, just like that. - What happens after we die? Digitally, that is.
It's a question you probably don't think about a lot or at least hadn't until there was a global pandemic. - [Announcer] Covid cases climb. Communities are reeling. - [Joanna] But over the last year, it's one I've thought about a lot. In fact, before COVID-19 was a thing and Zoom funerals were a necessity, my readers and viewers had been asking me about preserving their digital assets for the generations to come. Do we leave behind a collection of passwords and memorialized online accounts? A bot so future generations can hear us.
- [James] Alexa, open the life of Paul number one. - [Paul] Hello there. This is Paul. How are you? - [Joanna] How about uploading our essence into a humanoid robot? - Well, hi, it's nice to see you. - Yeah, that one's a lot. My mission has always been to help people make sense of new technology.
But with this journey, I needed to step into the shoes of someone who's been forced to think about their digital legacy. That's when I found Lucy Watts. - Every blog I write, every post I write, that's gonna live on after I've died and some people want to be deleted. I want to be preserved.
I want that to stay online. - Here's the thing though. It doesn't matter who you are. A new parent, an aging adult, a young person on borrowed time, all these technologies look to help with the eternal question, how will people remember us when we aren't here anymore? (static buzzes) (electronic beeps) (door knocks) - Hello. - Hi.
Joanna. - Hi Joanna, I'm Kate. - Nice to meet you. - Come on.
Oh God. Good girl, switch sides, switch. Here, here, here, oh, oh.
Good girl. Thank you, well done. - In November, 2019, I went to visit Lucy and her Kate mom in a small town outside of London. In our pandemic world, many of us live our lives at home and through the internet, but that's how Lucy's been living for years. So this is where the magic happens.
- Yeah, this is my window to the world. (keyboard keys click) I'm very emotionally attached to my technology because it's such an important part of my life. Not just in terms of internet and social media, actually my medical equipment. You know, my life depends on technology.
- Lucy suffers from an undiagnosed condition that affects the energy producing cells in her body. She's bound to a wheelchair, fed through a tube and has 24 hour care. She's already lived beyond her own life expectancy. Do you want people to sort of picture this when they remember you? - My illness is a big part of me. You can't separate me from it because actually it's part of my life, it's made me who I am, but I don't want to be remembered for it. That's not the legacy I want to have.
There's so many different things that I do online. I do a lot of blogging, Facebook, Twitter. I make YouTube videos.
Hello everyone. Hi everyone. I want people to remember me for the speeches and the work and all the things I've done and achieved. A large focus of my work is on healthcare.
This includes the work I do internationally around palliative care and universal health coverage. Inputting my life online, gives people a way to get to know me even when I'm not here anymore. - Do you have thoughts on like how you're gonna organize some of this digital stuff as you think about who will take it? - So I have a red bag that keeps all my end of life documents together and it will have a social media will in there and a memory stick with instructions I'm gonna make for my mom.
- [Joanna] Lucy already has the easy part of her digital legacy under control, a system for passing on our most important digital files, online accounts and passwords. She's named her mother as her legacy contact on Facebook and other services. Plus she's organized her important files on hard drives. But like all of us, Lucy's social media accounts and disjointed files don't capture the essence of her. And since the days of photo books and VHS tapes are gone, how do we capture and pass on our life stories? - That's what I'm struggling with.
For my family it's to hear me, to see me, to remember me as I am today, the person they knew and loved and to have memories shared and stories shared of our lives together. I try to always factor in my family's needs into what I'm doing because I recognize that this isn't just about me. - Yeah, that's cute. I think she was five there. - No teeth. - Yes.
She was so sweet. Well, she still is. - Photos are what most people sort of think about the memories that they're gonna have of someone who passes. What about all this digital legacy stuff.
For you you're gonna have this whole other - Yeah. - Body of things that Lucy's written online and videos. - Yeah. Maybe it'll make it a little bit easier, maybe it won't. I really don't know. But maybe in time it will, I will be able to look back on it and think, oh well, you know she did do a lovely thing. And it, but it won't replace her.
- Have you thought about your digital legacy mommy? You have to think about what happens to your blog. Who's gonna write it. - Kate's skepticism made me realize that considering what those who survive us want is core to all this. I also had a hunch there were some tech options out there that might work better for her than she might think.
I'd like to now go talk to a couple of other companies and see what they're making and see if you would be on board with either trying them or seeing if they'd work for you. - That'd be great. Even if I don't use those platforms, but they might give me ideas and thoughts of ways I can make an impact and have a legacy in a different way than I've considered. - [Joanna] Thank you guys so much.
It was so great to meet you. Thank you for everything Lucy - Thank you. - And I'll see. - Safe journey. - [Joanna] Thank you. So a few weeks later I went where I typically go to find new tech, the San Francisco Bay area.
And in true Silicon Valley tradition, where did I find the innovator really thinking about this problem? In his garage. - Hello, are you there dad? - [Joanna] In 2016, James Vlahos recorded 20 hours of interviews with his father who had just been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. James eventually transcribed it so it would be searchable.
Then he used that to create a chat bot that responds to messages with text, audio, and photos. He lovingly called it, Dad bot. - How did you meet mom? - [Mr. Vlahos] The meeting of mom, was,
I had a rehearsal and after the rehearsal (murmurs) - - So why did you ultimately decide to make Dad Bot? - I wanted to make the Dad Bot 'cause I wanted to have a way to get at my dad's story. And as I got better at the programming part of it, I started to think more and more about capturing some of his personality and his way of being in the world. ♪ The surely golden bird is watching from the sky ♪ I love that song. I liked that one myself. - Do you interact with your dad via the bot pretty often? - It's like I'll just have him sing one of his songs or tell one of his jokes and you know, heard them all before, but there's just something in hearing his voice that's comforting.
- [Joanna] It was James's experience making Dad Bot that made him wanna give everyone a similar opportunity. What is Hereafter? - Hereafter is using conversational AI to help people share their life stories Interactively. The basic essence of it is recording somebody, sharing all these memories about their life. - My father Frank was a teacher at like at Lexington High School. - And then
instead of having it sort of locked away or lost in a computer somewhere, you make it accessible through voice AI and Alexa. - [Joanna] James and his team record you telling stories about your life and then turn it into a voice bot, a.k.a an app that lets you converse with a computer. - [Alexa] I'm Alexa. I share this name with lots of amazing people.
- [Joanna] On the Amazon Echo, instead of hearing Alexa, people hear you. - I mean, do you wanna meet a Hereafter voice bot, I guess is the question. (chuckles) - I'd love to meet it Hereafter voice bot.
- [James] Alexa open the life of Paul number one. - [Paul] Hello there. This is Paul. There's so much to talk about. My childhood, career or family. - I wanna hear about when you were growing up.
- [Paul] There's different points in my life I've had different- - As I've been doing reporting on this topic, it sort of struck me that there are two parts of digital legacy. The legacy that the person who is going to die wants to leave behind. And then what the people that survive them want. Where does Hereafter fit in? - Hereafter is more oriented to the survivor. The children, the grandchildren, the people who are actually gonna be using the legacy AI.
- At this point, I immediately thought back to something. Kate had said in the kitchen. Do you worry that the digital legacy that Lucy may leave behind could interrupt your grieving process or change it or change it? - I think I could cope with the written word, but I'm not so sure I could cope with her actually, a visual picture of her telling me something.
I don't think I'll cope with that, I don't know. - What about audio? Maybe? - Yes, probably that would be okay, I think. - Recordings? - Yeah. - Some people would probably say, wouldn't you rather just let your dad go than have some malfunctioning version of him. - It's that whole line of argument of like, you know, when you should just let go, you should forget. You should move on.
We do try and remember, like we do keep photos. We do look at old writings. We'd go to our memories, but they're all just they're imperfect tools and it's just a tool for reminding me of my dad versus literally stepping in and emulating my dad.
- A voice bot might hint at a science fiction like future of technological immortality but in Lincoln Vermont, the Terasem Movement Foundation is just going straight for it. (door knocks) - Hi. - Hi. - Welcome. - Joanna. Nice to meet you. - Hi Joanna, Bruce Duncan.
- It's very cold here. - Yeah, come on in. We're gonna be right upstairs. - [Joanna] Bruce Duncan is the managing director of the foundation, which has been working on a humanoid robot that could represent the future of how we think of human consciousness. - The primary goal of the Terasem Movement Foundation is to pursue a multi-decade experiment in mind uploading. - Say what now? Mind uploading? Think of it as a digital backup of your mind. Yes, everything in there, your memories, your history saved in the cloud.
Except you don't plug your head into a computer. You input all your information into their LifeNaut website. and then algorithms interpret it to create you in a new digital form, like this wacky looking avatar type thing. - Want some?
- So this is your mind file. - This is my mind file, a work in progress. - Bruce. - Yes. Twins. - We are twins.
I guess you could say. That information then becomes the raw data for the experiment, which is, can we capture enough salient information about your uniqueness, your consciousness, so to speak, and reanimate that to a new form, like an avatar or download into a robot like BINA48. (suspenseful music) - BINA48 not just any old robot.
What makes her different is that her personality is based on the mind file of a real person. Bina Aspen Rothblatt is the wife of Martine. Rothblatt, the co-founder of Sirius XM. Together in 2004, the couple started the Terasem Movement Foundation with the goal of exploring digital immortality.
- People are gonna say, why did we ever think people had to really die? - I think you're right. I don't think people have to die. - [Bruce] She has 32 motors in her face. She has two cameras in her eyes and she uses voice recognition to hear us. - And you can basically converse with her? - The best way to really find out about what it's like to talk to BINA48, just to talk to her.
- Okay. My name is Joanna Stern. And I'm a reporter with the "Wall Street Journal." - I don't know what to say. Reporters make me nervous. - Robots make me nervous.
Where are you from? - I grew up in California. We had to make our clothes. Sewing was a very big thing. - So everything that is in BINA48's mind file, 85% let's say came from our interviews with Bina. Now she's actually responding with choices from her database that the human Bina never put together as a result of her own algorithms function.
- And so I consider it a duty to bring consciousness. We are talking true consciousness to machines. - Going from a real person to mind files to a robot like BINA48 isn't just a thing that's gonna happen overnight. It requires a team of engineers, a lot of money and a hell of a lot of trust.
I have a friend and someone who I've come across in my research on this topic, her name is Lucy. One thing she shared with me is sort of a skepticism around not having control. With this type of project, it feels like that control goes out the window. - I think she's not alone.
I think she has a lot of company. I mean, I don't wanna lose control of my whole life just because I participated in an experiment, but many people have participated in science at some risk because they wanna advance the human condition. - Is immortality possible? - We are working on preserving ourselves as much as possible and that's the purpose of the life, not project because death is really unnecessary and stupid. Let's cure death, okay. - [Bruce] Just making sure the motors aren't burning up. Thought I smelled something for a second.
- [Joanna] Yeah, it does smell a little. - It'll be good to- - Cool her down. - Give her a break. - Yeah. I would not want Bina to die on our watch. - [Bruce] No.
So, - The irony of that. Okay. My day with BINA48 and Bruce made my own head feel like it was on fire, though I certainly learned a lot about where this all may be heading and just how far we have to get there. Hereafter AI and the Terasem Movement aren't the only tech players in the space either.
It turns out trying to crack a mortality is a popular business, especially during a pandemic. Since mid-2020 more startups have emerged. But by that point I was pretty settled on how I wanted to help Lucy and Kate. - Hey. - Hey, how are you?
- Yeah, nice to meet you. I'm James. - I just chatted with Lucy and Kate before you came on and I told them a little bit about what you're doing at Hereafter, and I just thought this technology could be an interesting fit for the whole Watts' family. - I think for me, she could say something that would encourage me to carry on because obviously you're talking about Lucy will be great or Lucy talking about Lucy would be great. But I think just some encouragement really to keep going.
- Or we can incorporate some of those messages actually. - I wanna ask you if you can go here in your mind right now, what's the very first thing you remember from your life. - I used to have a nurse to come in and look. I had a little kitchen toy. - This was one of multiple interviews James recorded with Lucy over the course of the next few months.
While James did not charge for his work with Lucy, Hereafter AI is a paid service. It starts at $295 or $7 per month by subscription for one hour of life story interviews. A few weeks after that introduction, this quest for finding the best tool to preserve Lucy's legacy became more personal for me. My mom had a health scare of her own that landed her in the hospital. - [Reporter] 75 million people in New York. - [Joanna] Then less than a month later, COVID-19 spread throughout the US and UK leading to thousands of deaths.
- This is a video talking a bit about the pandemic and what steps people can take in the UK specially to protect ourselves and- - The urgency was there for Lucy, for me, for all of us. And so I started planning for my own family. Some of those steps were easy. I followed Lucy's advice and added a digital executor to my will and asked my close family to do the same.
I added legacy contacts to my social media accounts. But the biggest thing, I started to record the stories of the people I love most, starting with my mom who is now back to her healthy self. Hi mom. - Hi Anna, how you doing? Good. Good to see you.
Come on in. You know, when you're talking about technology, this one here was taken, I think on one of the first Polaroid cameras. That was 1962. - Wow.
- What do I wanna be remembered for? Of everything in my life, I wanna be remembered for love. And the laughter. And through that laughter, you learn to live.
I try to see things through a different lens sometimes and I hope I've done that for you. So I think those are ways that I wanna be remembered most. - And so I'm really lucky to have you tell me that and to have it captured right now in audio.
- Absolutely. Hysterical I heard it. - I like your- Like writing a will, it's a hard thing to decide what to leave behind. But once you actually do it, there's a feeling of comfort knowing it's done.
(Skype ringtone) There you guys are. So good to see you. Kate, you got a haircut. - No. I did actually, yes. (chuckles)
- Are you out and doing things yet or really just staying home? - Yeah, I'm still being told stay at home and shield. So like now, the only people we have coming in are healthcare professionals. I've left the house since the (murmurs) of March. - Well, James has finished the bot. There's a lot of audio in there. Would you like to hear it? - Yeah. - Please, that'd be great.
Open life of Lucy. - [Lucy Bot] Hello there. This is Lucy. Glad to be back. Would you rather hear something now about my mother or my father? - Tell me about mom.
- [Lucy Bot] My mom is my best friend. She's a huge part of my life. She's my sounding board and having nearly lost her once I never realized just how much of an impact she had on my life until I nearly didn't have her anymore. And I know now that I can't live without her. She is my person that enables me to be the person I am. - Do you feel like that Lucy and James sort of captured Lucy in this? - Yeah, absolutely.
It's, I don't know what I expected, I really didn't, but it's really good. - yeah. Yeah. I feel overwhelmed. Yeah, I really do. - Yeah, I do too also watching you guys after...
When people we love die, there's no telling what will help with the loss. It's hard to imagine technology, no matter how good the robots become ever replacing someone's true essence. - When we were young, I remember it was so exciting...
- [Joanna] But technology can help us remember. Sometimes the sound of a laugh, a song, a story can make it feel like people are still with us. - I will live forever. - And because you have a lot of my memories, they will live forever as well. - [Kate] Open life of Lucy.
- [Lucy Bot] Hello there. This is Lucy. Glad to be back. There's so much to talk about. My childhood, work or interests. Which of these sound best? - [Joanna] Technology allows us to preserve those things.
You just have to do it before it's too late. - [Lucy Bot] Mom, I'm always with you no matter where you are. And I know you have to go on without me, but try and live your life the best you can with me still a part of it. (mellow music)