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Chat beyond the grave is no substitute for hope

21 October 2016

IT WAS recently reported that an American technology company has created a virtual version of a dead person. This is a “chat bot”, based on thousands of text messages sent by the deceased before he died, and recreating his speech patterns to enable virtual conversations to continue between him and his bereaved friends. It is predicted that chat bots will become a routine part of the bereavement process, especially for those who have no access to traditional supportive rituals.

I can understand the appeal. There are conversations with the dead which might be thought natural, and even necessary. One of the most poignant themes of the popular television crime series New Tricks was the continuing relationship that the former Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Halford had with his dead wife, consulting her as he sat with his evening drink beside the memorial to her in his back garden. Many find consolation by visiting churchyards and talking to departed loved ones.

There is, however, a world of difference between this kind of conversation and that envisaged by chat bots. The problem with chat bots is that they simulate all too well the responses that the dead person might have made when alive. These are inevitably limited by the vocabulary and habits that have been recorded from life. They are like an extended voicemail message.

I can understand how, in grief, one might preserve a voicemail message instead of wiping it, just to hear the dead person’s voice once more. But the message or chat bot cannot bring the dead person back to life. Our relationship with dead loved ones does not begin to evolve until we accept that they have really died. They are simply not here in the way that they once were.

This does not mean that our relationship with them is over. The dead are part of us; we continue to hold them in our hearts and memories, and there are occasions when we may still want to talk to them. And I think we may do so, recognising that the conversation that we have with the dead by a grave or a memorial does not get a response other than that which springs up from our imagination.

This can be very real and vivid; but its roots are in memory, and memories are open to change in a way that simulated likenesses are not. In the end, we have to let the dead go. This is not because we accept despair, but because we live in hope. That hope is not of a frozen digital immortality, but of the unfathomable future mystery that we call the resurrection of the dead. 

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