Microsoft patent details tech that could turn dead people into AI chatbots



In the 2013 Black Mirror episode Be Right Back, a grieving woman interacts with a digital re-creation of her dead boyfriend.  


An AI chatbot that lets you interact with dead loved ones sounds like something straight out of science fiction. But if technology in a patent filed by Microsoft comes to fruition, interacting with a 3D digital version of the deceased could one day become de rigueur. 

The patent, titled “Creating a conversational chatbot of a specific chatbot of a specific person,” details a system that would access images, voice data, social media posts, electronic messages and the like to “create or modify a special index in the theme of the specific person’s personality.” In some cases, images and video could be used to create a 3D model of the person. 

It’s an especially provocative notion when you consider the patent’s suggestion that the tech “may correspond to a past or present entity.” 

Microsoft filed the patent in 2017, but it became public in December and has been the subject of online chatter due to its suggestion of a chatbot that brings a “past entity” back to life as a kind of interactive living memorial. As jarring as the idea  might seem at first, many who’ve lost a loved one will understand the comfort that can come from watching old videos of the deceased, or listening to their archived voicemails. Death creates an aching hole we long to fill. 

Sci-fi series Black Mirror already explored the concept of resurrecting the dead through technology in the moving 2013 episode Be Right Back. In it, a bereaved woman played by Hayley Atwell hires a service that lets her interact with a shockingly accurate AI re-creation of her dead boyfriend, played by Domhnall Gleeson. This version is based on his past online communication and social media profiles. 

Similar scenarios have already made their way into real life, with holograms of celebrities like Whitney Houston and rapper Tupac Shakur. And in 2015, Eugenia Kuyda, co-founder and CEO of software company Replika, trained a chatbot on thousands of text messages she’d shared with her best friend Roman, who died in a car accident. In doing so, she created an immortal digital Roman that could still “talk” to family and friends. 

That a company as prominent as Microsoft is pondering a system for immortalizing the dead through chatbots suggests the practice could become far more widely accepted and used. But as my CNET colleague Alison DeNisco Rayome explores in this story, the question is should we do it? And if we do, what should it look like? As the Black Mirror episode highlights, there are no easy answers.  

Microsoft did not immediately respond to a request for comment.