The chatbot you are dying to meet

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  • Chatbots are being trialled for the provision of end-of-life counselling
  • The possibility is emerging of creating a chatbot that can mimic a real person enabling them to ‘live on’ after death
  • US company Pullstring is to offer software that will facilitate the creation of conversational agents that could mimic a deceased person if fed with information about their life.
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As we’ve reported in this column, chatbots are making ever greater inroads in the contact centre, supplementing the human operator to answer routine, and increasingly complex, enquiries.

But in addition to providing information about a company’s products and services, or the status of a customer’s account, could they take on the role of counsellor, dealing with deeply personal and sensitive issues?

Yes, they can, say their proponents.

Meet the griefbot: the automated, artificially-intelligent end-of-life counsellor.

CNet reported in September: “Increasingly, it's looking like chatbots are going to be the ones helping some of us to accept the inevitable and wrestle with our very human questions about death.

“Increasingly, it's looking like chatbots are going to be the ones helping some of us to accept the inevitable and wrestle with our very human questions about death.”

“Researchers are already making bots that can talk people through their personal and, importantly, spiritual anxieties about death in addition to helping them plan for the end.”

One driver for such bots, according to CNet, is demand for end-of-life counselling that is prohibitively costly for many Americans.

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“It wasn't until last year that Medicare, which covers people over the age of 65, covered end-of-life consultations. As soon as it was covered, more than double the expected number of seniors took advantage. But that policy only helps some people -- tens of millions of Americans are currently uninsured.”

By all accounts, these robot preparers for maker-meeting are working. New Scientist reported a test of a tablet-based chatbot with 44 people aged 55 and over in Boston.

“Just under half those adults had some kind of chronic illness, and nearly all had spent time with someone who was dying. After spending time talking to the chatbot, most of the participants reported that they felt less anxious about death and were more ready to complete their last will and testament.”

The New Scientist article continued, “For the next stage of the trial, [the researcher] plans to give tablets loaded with the chatbot to 364 people who have been told they have less than a year to live. The slightly more souped-up version can also take users through guided meditation sessions and talk to them about their health and medication, as well as conversing on a wide range of religious topics.”

These chatbots can only improve so we can expect them to become a routine and accepted part of life, or rather death. But there’s another kind of end-of-life chatbots that is much more unsettling, and rather macabre: an after-life bot.

The possibility of digitally interacting with someone from beyond the grave is no longer the stuff of science fiction.”

Quartz Media reported earlier this year that “The possibility of digitally interacting with someone from beyond the grave is no longer the stuff of science fiction. The technology to create convincing digital surrogates of the dead is here, and it’s rapidly evolving, with researchers predicting its mainstream viability within a decade.”

Wired author James Vlahos is a pioneer. When his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he started long discussions in which his father reminisced about his life. Vlahos has transcribed those into a 92,000-word history of his father’s life. Now he says,

“I dream of creating a Dadbot—a chatbot that emulates not a children’s toy but the very real man who is my father. And I have already begun gathering the raw material: those 91,970 words that are destined for my bookshelf.”

He’ll have some help. Pullstring is the company behind the latest generation of Barbie doll that is able to converse with its owner. PullString, he says, “is planning to publicly release its software for creating conversational agents. Soon anybody will be able to access the same tool that Pullstring has used to create its talking characters.”

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