Snippets of script like this sounded strange and shrill, but as we progressed, with my mother recounting memories and speaking in her own words, “she” sounded much more relaxed and natural.
Even so, this conversation and the ones that followed were limited; for example, when I tried to ask my mom’s bot about her favorite jewelry, it said, “Sorry, I didn’t understand. You can try asking another way or move to another topic.”
There were also glitches that were jarring to the point of hilarity. One day, Dad’s bot asked me how I was doing. I replied, “I feel sad today.” He responded with a cheerful and upbeat “Good!”
The overall experience was undeniably strange. Every time I talked to their virtual versions, it struck me that I could have been talking to my real parents. On one occasion, my husband mistook my bot test for a real phone call. When he realized he wasn’t, he rolled his eyes, tapped, and shook his head, as if 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. Their Life service records responses on video instead of just voice.
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 the quality of the recording, the better the result. After you upload the files, the company turns them into a digital version of the person you can see and talk to. He can only answer the questions he’s scheduled for, like HereAfter, with video only.
StoryFile CEO Stephen Smith demonstrated the technology in a video call, joined by his mother. She passed away earlier this year, but here she was on the call, sitting in a comfortable chair in her living room. For a brief time, I could only see her, shared through Smith’s screen. He was soft-spoken, with flowing hair and kind eyes. He gave life advice. She seemed wise.
Smith told me that her mother “attended” her own funeral: “At the end she said, ‘I guess that’s me…goodbye!’ and everyone burst into tears.” He told me that his digital participation was well received by family and friends. And perhaps most important of all, Smith said he is deeply comforted by the fact that he was able to capture his mother on camera before she died.