Since its public debut last year, the AI chatbot ChatGPT has both astounded and unsettled the world with its extensive knowledge, surprising empathy, and potential to reshape the world in unforeseen, possibly miraculous or disastrous, ways. Now, a new frontier is opening up as ChatGPT pioneers the creation of “thanabots” – chatbots trained on data of deceased individuals – offering the potential for digital resurrection and communication with the departed.

Developed by OpenAI, ChatGPT is a large language model fueled by over 300 billion words from diverse online sources. It responds to human prompts by predicting words based on its training and input, creating a fluid and human-like conversation. Beyond casual interactions, ChatGPT has demonstrated the ability to pass rigorous tests, compose scientific papers, and even convince Microsoft scientists of its language comprehension and reasoning capabilities.

Intriguingly, ChatGPT and other large language models can be further tailored to emulate specific people. Programmer Jason Rohrer discovered that by feeding ChatGPT with examples of an individual’s communication style and life details, he could create chatbots that emulate their personality. His venture, Project December, enables customers to craft personalized chatbots, including ones inspired by deceased friends and family.

The emotional impact of thanabots is profound, as exemplified by Joshua Barbeau, who utilized Project December to create a chatbot embodying the personality of his deceased fiancée. This concept, rooted in thanatology (the study of death), holds promise for the future, especially as more individuals leave behind substantial digital records in texts, emails, and social media posts.

While thanabots offer potential benefits, ethical considerations arise. Thanabots may be created without prior consent from the deceased or as part of “digital estate planning.” Giants like Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft, with vast stores of digital communications, could potentially enter the realm of thanabot creation and distribution.

The potential benefits of thanabots are noteworthy – providing support for the grieving, alternative estate management, and enriching cultural perspectives on death. However, challenges exist. Thanabots are limited by their foundation of digital data, which might not capture the entirety of an individual’s identity. Furthermore, they could potentially exacerbate feelings of grief and despair, failing to deliver the desired catharsis.

As we venture into this uncharted territory, one thing is clear: the boundaries of death and communication are evolving, ushering in an era where the finality of passing away is being redefined.

By Impact Lab