Can AI preserve the stories of our ancestors?

Richard Kyte mug

Richard Kyte is the director of the DB Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin. His upcoming book, “Finding Your Third Place,” will be published by Fulcrum Books.

Of the many uses entrepreneurs are finding for artificial intelligence, one of the most interesting and disturbing is creating virtual “people” that mimic someone who has died.

For $19.99 per month, You, Only uses Virtual AI to build what they call a “Versona,” a virtual representation based on a person’s communications data that “can be seamlessly introduced into existing text, phone, and video communications channels – creating a uninterrupted connection between loved ones – even after death.”

In an interview with ABC News, Justin Harrison, the founder of You, Only Virtual, said, “I have a virtual mom who talks to me ad nauseam about getting more rest and asking why I don’t hydrate.” When a question is raised about whether his mother would have wanted her likeness used in that way, Harrison dismisses it. “You absolutely don’t need permission from someone who’s dead,” he says.

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But is it unreasonable to have moral qualms about creating an interactive reproduction of a deceased person?

This is an example of a new kind of ethical question that hasn’t been raised before (outside of science fiction) because the technology didn’t exist to make it possible. But due to the recent developments in AI, we need to answer it now. Does anyone have the right to say how their personality will be displayed after death? For example, can someone stipulate in their will that any AI use of their images, videos and voice recordings be restricted?

That’s not the only ethical consideration arising from AI’s ability to produce virtual representations of the dead. Another question concerns the consequences for the living. Is it wise to continue to treat a deceased loved one as if they were still alive? That’s not an easy question to answer.

Even without the help of new technologies, we can dream about people we have lost, have conversations with them in our imaginations, or look at photos or videos. But all of those things seem fundamentally different from having a telephone conversation with a deceased relative.

StoryFile is an ethical company that uses images and recordings to create virtual interactive personalities based on real people. One of their projects is Tell Me, Inge, which allows you to ask questions to a virtual representation of Inge Auerbacher, a Holocaust survivor who was imprisoned in Theresienstadt as a child. The virtual Inge answers questions using the actual answers Inge gave to interviewers during two days of intensive questioning. If someone asks about something outside the scope of those interviews, she politely says she can’t answer that question.

This is the same technology used by the Shoah Foundation’s Dimensions in Testimony program, which uses pre-recorded interviews to create holographic images of survivors. The interactive experience uses AI, but the words and images do not go beyond the original recordings of the person represented.

I do not think there are any ethical concerns in using advanced technologies in this way to preserve the testimony of witnesses to important historical events, and doing so in ways that make teaching about those events more interesting, engaging and relevant. But we still need to keep in mind that the only way to keep the stories of the past alive is to pass on the tradition of storytelling.

Some of my fondest memories of growing up are the days I would ride my bike out of town to visit my grandparents. Grandma Mae put a pot of coffee on the stove and pulled out a rhubarb pie or peach pie she had just made. Grandpa Emmett pulled up a chair at the kitchen table and we all sat down for a long afternoon of storytelling.

They had all kinds of stories, and I never knew how many of them were true. Emmett told stories about his uncle, one of North Dakota’s first game wardens and a friend of Annie Oakley. He talked about working in the California shipyards and helping build the Alaska Highway. Mae’s stories were less adventurous and more believable: skating to school across a frozen lake, picking bunches of chokecherries to make a year’s worth of jelly, and leaving food at the back door for hobos passing through during the Depression. I remember thinking at the time that I should take a tape recorder with me to capture those stories. Of course I never did that.

However, it wasn’t just the stories themselves that were valuable. Even more important was the time we spent together in shared imagination, along with the feeling that they were entrusting me with something precious. My grandparents introduced me to a tradition of storytelling that their parents and grandparents had shared with them when they were young. Without realizing it at the time, I was receiving a lesson in stewardship.

We are connected by the stories we share. Stories shape our lives. They provide context for our experiences, transforming them from a series of ‘one damn thing after another’ into a journey, from beginning to end. Stories are the means by which our lives gain shared meaning.

Can AI help us preserve shared meanings? Maybe. But only if it is used alongside the everyday practices of loving care and hospitality that cultures have used for generations to draw each other deeper into the shared spaces where a common identity is formed.

To keep the stories alive in the hearts of the next generation, we must encourage our children to act as storytellers in their turn. AI won’t be able to do that. It takes real people to bring others into the circle of love.