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    Mourning 2.0: The AI-Driven Era of Coping With Loss in China

    With advancements in AI, several Chinese companies are now venturing into the world of griefbots and digital avatars, which help reconnect with lost loved ones. But experts warn of over-reliance, potential misuse, and the ethics of digital resurrection.

    Among the plot points of this year’s hit Chinese sci-fi film “The Wandering Earth 2” is a scientist’s quest to create an immortal digital copy of his daughter who died in a car accident. While this story may be set in a cinematic universe, AI-driven advancements today are offering unprecedented ways to cope with grief and keep memories alive.

    Capitalizing on the AI wave, particularly led by platforms like ChatGPT, several Chinese enterprises are now venturing into the world of griefbots and digital avatars. Infused with the personalities and “memories” of lost loved ones, the technology now offers a novel way for individuals to reconnect with their nearest and dearest. 

    Among such companies is Super Brain, an AI studio based in the eastern city of Taizhou. Its founder Zhang Zewei told Sixth Tone: “It all began with a request from a father, who wanted to use AI to connect with his son, who had died in a car accident.” These digital avatars are not mere simulations but lifelike recreations, with product offerings ranging from audio and video clips to interactive chatbots. 

    To date, Super Brain has completed over 400 orders, predominantly catering to those seeking to commemorate lost family members. While a snippet of video costs several hundred yuan, a customized chatbot costs anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 yuan ($6,860-$13,710), said Zhang, though he believes developing costs will decrease in the future.

    While experts acknowledge that such digital avatars offer some solace, they also come with a set of challenges: Over-reliance on these digital entities might hinder the natural grieving process, while there are concerns about potential misuse and the ethical implications of “resurrecting” the dead in a digital form. 

    “The rise of AI-powered programs reflects our natural desire to preserve bonds with the departed,” Tang Suqin, a professor of psychology at Shenzhen University specializing in grief counseling, told Sixth Tone. 

    According to Tang, an individual can cope with loss only after coming to terms with death, digesting the pain, and adjusting to their new life. “Like tidbits of voice recordings, meaningful photos, or self-made artwork, they gradually make them (AI programs) as the symbol (of those connections),” she said. 

    In recent months, such programs have sparked intense debate on social media. One particular video on Bilibili, a popular Chinese streaming platform, featuring a digital avatar of a user’s grandmother has garnered significant attention. The video showcased snippets of daily conversations between the user, surnamed Wu, and his virtual grandmother, who conversed in a local dialect, and was complete with lip-syncing. 

    Having amassed over 860,000 views, the video has divided netizens. Many see it as a heartfelt way to memorialize and find an emotional connection, while others critique it as a gimmick, deeming it disrespectful to the deceased.

    Second life

    Across China, Super Brain isn’t the only company developing commercial digital avatar products by leveraging advanced technology. 

    In April, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported that Silicon Intelligence, a Nanjing-based startup, could create digital avatars from just a one-minute video clip. Users can then interact with these replicas on the company’s platform. 

    The same month, Fu Shou Yuan International Group, a leading funeral operator in China, said it had begun crafting digital memorials on its cloud service. And by June, the company even demonstrated a digital version of a late TV commentator to illustrate the technology’s capacity to emulate real-life interactions.

    Recreating such digital clones often requires an assortment of emerging AI technologies, says Zhong Ping, the founder of Iceberg Data, a data labeling company looking to venture into this nascent space. 

    While the foundation of an avatar’s appearance and voice is built using AI-powered cloning tools, more specialized AI models are developed to embed memories, personalities, and emotions. 

    This advancement in generative AI has not only rejuvenated the industry but significantly improved the capabilities of these technologies. “You can now fully clone someone’s voice with an audio sample as short as five to ten seconds. In contrast, earlier technologies required 10 or even 20 minutes of audio, often requiring individuals to read specific scripts,” explained Zhong.

    One of the most influential milestones in this field has been the emergence of ChatGPT, which offers more sophisticated reasoning capabilities. “Unlike previous models that relied heavily on database-driven answers, ChatGPT can infer responses more organically,” said Zhong. He added that, by inputting enough personal data, the digital simulation of a deceased individual can achieve remarkable realism and depth.

    Zhong’s exploration in this field is deeply personal. Over recent months, he’s developed several virtual chatbots, including one modeled on his own grandfather. Drawing from diaries, books, and other personal information, Zhong crafted a chatbot that could convincingly discuss a plot from one of his books.

    However, for Zhong, the true value of these digital avatars goes beyond their technological prowess. The interaction with his virtual grandfather, despite an imperfect accent, was emotionally stirring. “Witnessing him move, talk, and respond was overwhelming,” said Zhong. “In moments like that, it becomes nearly impossible not to be moved.”

    For many of Super Brain’s clients, Zhang says digital avatars offer a rare chance to bid farewell and ease the pain of their loss. However, he’s still skeptical about the depth of connection these AI constructs can genuinely offer. “A robot has no warmth,” he argues, highlighting that these avatars cannot stay up to date with current information. 

    In response to these limitations, Zhang’s studio has introduced a counseling service that blends the AI with a human touch. While the digital replica emulates the look and voice of the departed, a trained mental therapist guides the conversation in real time. “This ensures more genuine and controlled interactions,” he said.

    Professor Tang believes AI’s potential to aid with the grieving process is significant. She explains that a common therapeutic technique involves clients speaking to an empty chair, imagining a conversation with the departed, or even sitting in the chair to embody the loved one. “The digital avatars might well enhance this traditional method, and serve as a more tangible medium for such interactions,” she explained.

    Yet, Tang also expresses caution. She emphasized to Sixth Tone the vital importance of helping individuals accept the irreversible reality of their loss. “True mourning begins only when one comes to terms with death and acknowledges the change in their life.”

    Echoing similar concerns, Zhang recounted an instance where the studio declined to offer the chat service to a grieving mother due to deep concerns about her emotional well-being following suicide attempts after her daughter’s death.

    Zhong, from Iceberg Data, doesn’t envision such digital avatars as entities that people would engage with constantly. Instead, he sees them fulfilling a specific, occasional emotional need — perhaps serving as a tool during events like funerals.

    “It’s still too early for these digital replicas to fully simulate a human being and thereby recreate a so-called digital life,” said Zhong. 

    One significant challenge is accessing comprehensive personal data on the deceased to effectively train the AI models. This data collection isn’t just complex and subject to privacy concerns; it’s also labor-intensive and costly.

    Zhang concurred, pointing to the struggles his company faced in trying to standardize its products in the face of varied demands from clients. 

    Amid these technical challenges, Tang underscores the importance of continued research in this field. “We need to determine whether these current technologies bring more good than harm or not, or which people they can help,” she said.

    Editor: Apurva.  

    (Header image: A screenshot shows Zhang’s coworker talking to his AI grandmother. From @超级头脑AI魔法师 on Xiaohongshu)