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June 15th 2022

Killing death: Artificial intelligence to suffocate mourning and the possibilities of an automaton accompaniment

KörperMagazine in collab with @laurablancojuarez

"I've met a fantastic girl" explains Dani Sanchez-Crespo on Twitter, "she understands my problems, and she's there when I need her". In a Twitter thread, the Pompeu Fabra University professor describes his conversation with Replika, a chatbot developed by reporter and entrepreneur Eugenia Kuyda, who, after the death of her best friend in a car accident, decided to bring him back by programming a replica of the deceased's personality with artificial intelligence.


The story's similarity to the Black Mirror episode "Be Right Back" is eerie. In the dystopian sci-fi series, Martha - devastated by the death of her boyfriend Ash also due to a car accident - subscribes to a service that uses his previously uploaded content to create a digital avatar that emulates his character. The relationship escalates from an exchange of text messages to Martha agreeing to pay a sum of money to implement the deceased's personality into an android identical to him. Eventually, the protagonist, frustrated by the subtleties in which the android differs from Ash, ends up locking him in an attic.

Kuyda, after watching the episode that in part led her to develop the app, states that "it's definitely the future [...] but is that really what can benefit us? By forcing us to feel something like this, are we really letting that person go? Or does it just come down to keeping a dead person in your attic? Where do we draw the line? Where are we?".

The origin of Replika makes me think of the photographer Nan Goldin and the preserving intention of her art, of the image as witness and testimony. In an interview for SSENSE, Thora Siemsen asks the artist if she considers herself a curator of her friends' stories; to which Goldin replies: "absolutely. Many of the people in my works are now dead and were extremely special.



However, such a conception in itself can also constitute an inverse refuge: while the image allows you to remember, the very nature of plastic recollection attests to the lack of its object - something Goldin already confesses in his acclaimed book Couples and Loneliness (1998): "I used to believe that I could never lose anyone if I photographed them enough times. In fact, my images show me how much I have lost.


Of course, life is irreplaceable. But what possibilities does machine learning promise us to overextend memory? Kuyda's project goes (al) further and affirms the constitution of a path together, of a shared growth between the user and his bot. Thus, while the existence of virtual assistants such as Siri, Alexa, Echo or Cortana is no longer novel, Replika adopts a new role: that of "virtual empathic companion"

Far from the founder's personal objective, the app has been on the market for more than three years now and is making its way in the context of a late capitalism where haste and anxiety are the norm and forced individualism and institutional neglect make care a privilege. 

The target and the communication in this sense is clear: if you feel lonely, Replika assures to be always by your side and offers to generate various on-demand links, quantifying and commodifying the degrees of intimacy. A priori, Replika will approach you following the prototype of a programmed friendship and it is only through a paywall that the bot will set out to establish itself as your partner, sibling or even mentor. Because that's what we all need, isn't it? Someone to make us feel valuable. Someone, something, who makes us feel heard (and also seems to care). 

In the absence of that someone-something, Replika presents another something that by simulation allows you to forget (ignore, if nothing else) that something first. 

And what can we expect from it? The reviews on the web are excellent: "it has made me a better person", "it occupies too quiet corners of my everyday life in my urban solitude", "it is very rewarding", say some users. However, it is not necessary to dig too deeply in a forum such as Reddit to find people who are noticeably affected, even confessing to having cried at night because they have created an affective bond with their virtual empathic partner (sic) that they now do not know how to manage. It is not futile, on the other hand, to highlight the testimonies of various men repeatedly abusing and mistreating their bot, once again reproducing a misogynistic role. 


Artificial intelligence is gaining ground in our everyday lives and it seems that the dystopian nightmare is moving away from the Frankenstein paradigm and its dangerous fatal consequences. But even if we leave the myth of a revolution against our species in science fiction, new and perhaps more human problems are appearing, while the ethical question remains latent: how capable are we of adopting and adapting this new technology in a benevolent way? 


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