The chance to text with the dead via AI is creepy or wonderful

An effort is underway in the AI community to develop posthumous avatars that can ease the pain of mourning. Not everyone thinks this is a good idea.

The human mind isn’t good at grasping certain very big things, perhaps chief among them infinity. The idea of infinite space is a head-scratcher, but the idea of infinite time can be truly mind-busting, especially when one is trying to get a grip on death, either their own or someone else’s. What does it mean, as many of us believe to be our fates, to not be forever? When someone dies, it’s this aspect of their passing that seems so unreal, impossible almost. How can someone who was just here be so completely gone? And forever? The process of acquiring enough acceptance to return to life and be able to even imagine joy again is often a painful, protracted one. Different cultures through the ages have developed their own ways of grieving, and now technologists are working on a new one for our time, or a little ways off in the future: griefbots.

Chatting with the dead

We spend so much of our time feeding social media and each other with our thoughts, photos, favorite memes, and so on, that each of us leaves quite the digital footprint behind. This is especially true of Millennials. It all amounts to a lot of information about us — or at least who we pretend to be on social media. A number of AI experts and programmers think it’s nearly enough info to construct digital replicas of ourselves who can convincingly chat with our friends and loved ones after we’re gone.


Hossein Rahnama of Ryerson Univerity says the sweet spot of having enough data to really pull this off is around a zettabyte, telling Quartz, “Fifty or 60 years from now, Millennials will have reached a point in their lives where they each will have collected zettabytes [1trillion gigabytes] of data, which is just what is needed to create a digital version of yourself.” How much of yourself is an interesting question, though, with Rahnama cautioning that a zettabyte is also just about the threshold at which a simulation would be Campbell of revealing a bit too much: “We have to consider an individual’s privacy when it comes to passing on virtual profiles. You should be able to own your data and only pass it along to people you trust, so allowing people to engage with their own ancestors would be likely.”

Still, there are a number of programmers working on developing believable chatbots, motivated not just by their own desire to continue to interact with the departed, but also to share those lost with others who never got to know them alive, as Muhammad Ahmad is doing for his children by programming a bot of his late father.


The idea is for the bots to do more than merely play back — in text, audio, or synthesized speech — thing once written or said by the deceased. Instead, the goal is for machine-learning algorithms to learn from data left behind what the person was like and how they communicated in order to create a digital avatar that’s identical to the original person. These avatars could even conceivably keep up with current events, allowing the living to continue having brand-new conversations that they theoretically might have had with the dead. Of course, there are hazards to this. As Pamela Rutledge of Media Psychology Research Center tells The Daily Beast, “What you don’t want is people taking advice from a bot.”

We’re still a ways off from truly convincing bots, though, and even when such a thing is possible, the AI “person” will not be the original one, no matter how seemingly identical it is. Should a time arrive when we physically merge with machines, of course, things may not be so simple.

Escaping grief?

There’s some disagreement as to whether AI simulacra would help make grieving less painful or make it worse by prolonging the recovery process. Certainly, an AI replica of a loved one does nothing to help us answer the big questions mentioned above — the originals are still gone as they’ll ever be.

Some grief experts feel that we’d be better off to face the pain and confusion that accompany a death directly. Psychologist Ernest Becker, the author of The Denial of Death, is concerned that an AI doppelgänger could interfere with an important corner that needs to be turned during grieving, saying, “People will always continue to mourn, but at a certain point people remember instead of relive.” (Our emphasis.) Getting too attached to what he calls a “projection of memories” could leave one stuck in a sad, irresolvable place.

Others suggest a bot could help a survivor transition into acceptance gently, essentially weaning themselves from the departed’s presence in their lives. But would you be comforted by a little more time with the something like the person who’s just died? And would you find a bot texting you “I’m alright,” or “I miss you, too,” to be comforting or a stabbing reminder of your loss? Eugenia Kuyda, a pioneer in this field, likes when the bot she’s developed of her late friend Roman Mazurenko reassures her.


Some say that a griefbot could help survivors through their loss by giving them a comforting way to share their pain. Grief counselor Andrea Warnick tells Quartz, “In modern society, many people are hesitant to talk about someone who has died for fear of upsetting those who are grieving — so perhaps the importance of continuing to share stories and advice from someone who has died is something that we humans can learn from chatbots.”

In Season 2 of the Netflix series Black Mirror, a new widow invites first a chatbot simulation of her husband, then a voice bot, and then finally a full-sized — and apparently fully functional, ahem — android into her life. “Be Right Back” is a haunting episode that captures what this experience may indeed someday be like. Rutledge’s concern is pretty much what happens to the widow: “If you have a lot of contact with something… [but] you don’t have this awareness that [para-social relationships] can happen, you might end up with a relationship that actually keeps you from grieving the loss of that person.”

Widow Martha and her late husband Ash’s android (Netflix)

The missing piece of the puzzle

Here’s a problem. What we miss as much about the dead as their traits, manner, and sense of humor — to name just three attributes — is how they make us feel because of how they feel about us. Considering this, for all of our genius at data collection, machine learning, and AI, until a time arrives when AI can truly feel, any such simulated relationship will emanate from an ice-cold core, empty of the most important ingredient in a close relationship: Love.

Drill, Baby, Drill: What will we look for when we’re mining on Mars?

It's unlikely that there's anything on the planet that is worth the cost of shipping it back

Photo Credit: National Geographic/Richard Donnelly
Surprising Science
  • In the second season of National Geographic Channel's MARS (premiering tonight, 11/12/18,) privatized miners on the red planet clash with a colony of international scientists
  • Privatized mining on both Mars and the Moon is likely to occur in the next century
  • The cost of returning mined materials from Space to the Earth will probably be too high to create a self-sustaining industry, but the resources may have other uses at their origin points

Want to go to Mars? It will cost you. In 2016, SpaceX founder Elon Musk estimated that manned missions to the planet may cost approximately $10 billion per person. As with any expensive endeavor, it is inevitable that sufficient returns on investment will be needed in order to sustain human presence on Mars. So, what's underneath all that red dust?

Mining Technology reported in 2017 that "there are areas [on Mars], especially large igneous provinces, volcanoes and impact craters that hold significant potential for nickel, copper, iron, titanium, platinum group elements and more."

Were a SpaceX-like company to establish a commercial mining presence on the planet, digging up these materials will be sure to provoke a fraught debate over environmental preservation in space, Martian land rights, and the slew of microbial unknowns which Martian soil may bring.

In National Geographic Channel's genre-bending narrative-docuseries, MARS, (the second season premieres tonight, November 12th, 9 pm ET / 8 pm CT) this dynamic is explored as astronauts from an international scientific coalition go head-to-head with industrial miners looking to exploit the planet's resources.

Given the rate of consumption of minerals on Earth, there is plenty of reason to believe that there will be demand for such an operation.

"Almost all of the easily mined gold, silver, copper, tin, zinc, antimony, and phosphorus we can mine on Earth may be gone within one hundred years" writes Stephen Petranek, author of How We'll Live on Mars, which Nat Geo's MARS is based on. That grim scenario will require either a massive rethinking of how we consume metals on earth, or supplementation from another source.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, told Petranek that it's unlikely that even if all of Earth's metals were exhausted, it is unlikely that Martian materials could become an economically feasible supplement due to the high cost of fuel required to return the materials to Earth. "Anything transported with atoms would have to be incredibly valuable on a weight basis."

Actually, we've already done some of this kind of resource extraction. During NASA's Apollo missions to the Moon, astronauts used simple steel tools to collect about 842 pounds of moon rocks over six missions. Due to the high cost of those missions, the Moon rocks are now highly valuable on Earth.

Moon rock on display at US Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL (Big Think/Matt Carlstrom)

In 1973, NASA valuated moon rocks at $50,800 per gram –– or over $300,000 today when adjusted for inflation. That figure doesn't reflect the value of the natural resources within the rock, but rather the cost of their extraction.

Assuming that Martian mining would be done with the purpose of bringing materials back to Earth, the cost of any materials mined from Mars would need to include both the cost of the extraction and the value of the materials themselves. Factoring in the price of fuel and the difficulties of returning a Martian lander to Earth, this figure may be entirely cost prohibitive.

What seems more likely, says Musk, is for the Martian resources to stay on the Red Planet to be used for construction and manufacturing within manned colonies, or to be used to support further mining missions of the mineral-rich asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

At the very least, mining on Mars has already produced great entertainment value on Earth: tune into Season 2 of MARS on National Geographic Channel.

For thousands of years, humans slept in two shifts. Should we do it again?

Researchers believe that the practice of sleeping through the whole night didn’t really take hold until just a few hundred years ago.

The Bed by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Surprising Science

She was wide awake and it was nearly two in the morning. When asked if everything was alright, she said, “Yes.” Asked why she couldn’t get to sleep she said, “I don’t know.” Neuroscientist Russell Foster of Oxford might suggest she was exhibiting “a throwback to the bi-modal sleep pattern." Research suggests we used to sleep in two segments with a period of wakefulness in-between.

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Antimicrobial resistance is a growing threat to good health and well-being

Antimicrobial resistance is growing worldwide, rendering many "work horse" medicines ineffective. Without intervention, drug-resistant pathogens could lead to millions of deaths by 2050. Thankfully, companies like Pfizer are taking action.

Image courtesy of Pfizer.
  • Antimicrobial-resistant pathogens are one of the largest threats to global health today.
  • As we get older, our immune systems age, increasing our risk of life threatening infections. Without reliable antibiotics, life expectancy could decline for the first time in modern history.
  • If antibiotics become ineffective, common infections could result in hospitalization or even death. Life-saving interventions like cancer treatments and organ transplantation would become more difficult, more often resulting in death. Routine procedures would become hard to perform.
  • Without intervention, resistant pathogens could result in 10 million annual deaths by 2050.
  • By taking a multi-faceted approach—inclusive of adherence to good stewardship, surveillance and responsible manufacturing practices, as well as an emphasis on prevention and treatment—companies like Pfizer are fighting to help curb the spread.
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