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Memorializing loved ones through AI

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A growing number of companies are posing a radical idea - live on after you die through artificial intelligence. Digital avatars mirroring a person's voice and demeanor now offer a unique way to memorialize loved ones and even simulate an interaction with them after they've died. Well, some ethicists have been quick to raise potential red flags like, does this technology inhibit the grieving process?

For Michael Bommer, the decision to build an AI version of himself was easy. Bommer is dying from colon cancer. He likely only has a few weeks left to live. After Michael's terminal diagnosis, an opportunity arose for him to partner with a friend's AI company called eternos.life. He and his wife Anett have spent these last few weeks watching his digital avatar come to life. The couple's based in Berlin. They took a little time away from their day to talk with us, starting with the moment Michael decided to embark on this process.

MICHAEL BOMMER: About a year ago, I sat with my wife in one of these more teary-eyed exercises, talking about what comes. And my wife said, hey. One of the things I will miss most is being able to come to you, ask you a question. And you will sit there and calmly explain the world to me. And then I posted Facebook to all my friends - hey, guys. It's time to say goodbye. And Rob (ph) called me after that and said, hey. We all thought you might make it through, but hey. Here's a gift. Why don't we do this together?

KELLY: Anett, when Michael first told you about this idea, what did you think?

ANETT BOMMER: Well, I thought, well, let's do it.

KELLY: Really?

A BOMMER: He has a lot of projects. And at this moment, it was a little bit silent in our daily routine. And I thought, wow. That makes this part in his life a little bit better.

KELLY: So Michael, tell me. How did it work to build it, to program it? The things it sounds like Anett wants to ask you are things only you would know.

M BOMMER: So there's two steps to that. First, you need to give it my voice. And this happens with 300 sentences. You record. You create the voice, all the nuances of voice. And the second part is that you fill it with content. Now, in my case, because we were so short on time, I simply told 150 stories about my life - early life, mid-life, late life, what I would recommend back to me as a young person, what would I recommend to my children, my grandchildren. And next the content for the AI is created. Normally, this would take weeks and months, right? In my case, we needed to put it into, more or less, mere days.

And out of that, you create the AI. Now, when the AI now wants to answer a question, the question goes into - you can imagine it like the cloud. And in the cloud is all the late knowledge which I left for the AI, and he picks parts of the things I talked which fit for the answer and put them together into an answer. Now, sometimes there is something where the AI can take knowledge from the internet and ask a question to the internet and say, the car was making noises. So what causes these noises in cars? And he took this, you know, mainstream answer back.

KELLY: Are you sharing with it, then, things that you want to make sure Anett knows? Like, when the car starts making a weird noise and you're not around, she can ask and have an answer if, well, last time it was this, why don't you check?

M BOMMER: Yeah, so I didn't do that in that depth. What I did more is try to convey my principles, my principle in life, so to speak, always deescalating - say, it's great that you're home safe. I'm sure our auto mechanic can help you. So reinforcing - you're good, right? And then, by the way, these noises could come from this and this and that. So the principles which I gave - deescalating, stay calm, reflect, whatever, which is my nature - right? - that's in this AI hands.

KELLY: I'm listening to you. I'm thinking of something I read, which was a reference to this kind of AI as immortality tech. Is immortality a part of it? - I mean, because there's a piece of you, an essence of you that will carry on and carry on interacting with people you love.

M BOMMER: No. And it's - I see my AI as intelligent digital memoir. And so if you write your memoir, that's not eternal life. So I see it more as a tool. I want to give my knowledge and experience, and then I'm gone. I'm gone, and I'm gone. And I want the next generations to inherit my experience and my knowledge as much as possible.

KELLY: Anett, have you talked to it yet?

A BOMMER: Only for testing.

KELLY: For testing. Yeah.

A BOMMER: In this moment, I love the time with him.

KELLY: You're talking to the real Michael while you can.

A BOMMER: Yeah.

KELLY: Anett, do you think it will really feel like him, like your husband?

A BOMMER: No. For me, it is a machine.

KELLY: It is a machine.

A BOMMER: Exactly. Not warm, not touching, not - it isn't human.

KELLY: Is there any part of this that frightens you, worries you?

A BOMMER: No, I'm not afraid. It is, for me, a tool. And should I get afraid, I can close this tool and don't use it. So therefore, in this moment, I'm happy to have it and to try. And when I fail, I fail, but I'm not afraid about it.

M BOMMER: I'm leaving it behind. If it's used or not, if they hang it as a picture - like a picture of me on the wall or they put it in a drawer, I don't care. I cannot influence that. But I can leave it, right? I can leave it behind.

KELLY: I like that way of thinking about it. It's like a picture of you or a painting, which feels very normal to leave behind for people who will be grieving. Yeah. What type questions can you imagine asking it, Anett?

A BOMMER: Perhaps to read me a poem. Or I could ask him when he met us or when we got married, or I can ask him, tell me about when he proposed, remembering together all the nice things he had.

KELLY: Well, I want to thank you both for being so open and talking this through with us. I'm sorry for everything you are dealing with, and I appreciate your sharing it with us. Thank you.

M BOMMER: Thank you very much for taking us.

A BOMMER: Thank you.

KELLY: That is Michael Bommer and his wife, Anett, speaking with us from Berlin. Thank you.

M BOMMER: Bye-bye.

A BOMMER: Bye-bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS YORK SONG, "ALONE A LOT FT. ANTHONY HAMILTON" ) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Kathryn Fink
Kathryn Fink is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.