In 2020, a young Chinese software engineer in Hangzhou chanced upon an essay about lip syncing technology. Its premise is relatively simple — using a computer program to match a lip movements with speech recordings.
But his grandfather, who died nearly a decade earlier, came to mind.
“Can I see Grandpa again using this technology?” Yu Jialin asked himself.
His journey to recreate his grandfather, documented in April by investigative journalist Tang Yucheng for the state-owned magazine Sixth Tone, is one of several accounts now surfacing in China of people using artificial intelligence to resurrect the dead.
Mixing an assortment of emerging AI technologies, people in the country have been building chat programs — known as griefbots — with the personalities and memories of the deceased, hoping for a chance to speak to their loved ones again.
For Yu, they presented a chance to speak his final words to the man who helped raise him.
The software engineer, now 29, told Tang that he was 17 when his grandfather died.
He still regrets two instances when he was harsh to his grandfather. Yu yelled at the older man for interrupting a gaming session once, and on another occasion told his grandfather to stop picking him up from school, Tang reported.
His family stopped mentioning his grandfather after he died, he told Tang. “Everyone in the family was trying their best to forget Grandpa rather than remember him,” Yu said.
The Griefbot rides the ChatGPT craze
The griefbot concept has been trialed for years — largely as AI-powered programs that learn how to mimic human beings through their memorabilia, photos, and recordings. But generative AI’s rapid advancement in the last year has pushed the power and accessibility of griefbots to a whole new level.
Older models required vast sets of data. Now, laymen or lone engineers like Yu can feed language models with tidbits of a person’s past, and recreate almost exactly how they look, speak, and think.
“In today’s technology, you don’t need too many samples for an AI to learn the style of a person,” Haibing Lu, an information and analytics professor at Santa Clara University, told Insider.
Systems like ChatGPT, the popular text-based program that closely imitates human speech, have already learned how most people naturally speak or write, said Lu, whose research focuses on AI.
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