While Halloween is a mixed celebration of debauchery and fear, Día de los Muertos is, in its own way, something sweet and innocent. I first stumbled onto the holiday in my twenties. Having been raised Irish Catholic the idea of chatting with dead people was something layered in fear and superstitions. So, finding out that there are millions of people who honor their ancestors by welcoming them on a special day to remind them they’re loved just seemed like a pretty awesome way to kill a day. As it were. My first real experience with it came when a young lady named Maria, naturally, took me to her home on November 1st to introduce me to her family. We weren’t dating or anything, we just got along well. I walked in, said hi to mom and dad, who took one look at my multi-colored hair, earrings, and layers of black clothing and seemed relieved there was no dating involved. Then we walked to the shrine in the living room. It had some candles, a few shots of tequila, and the makings for a couple tacos, along with pictures of several late relatives. She proceeded to greet each one in Spanish, said a little prayer, and finally introduced me, hilariously, by saying “This is my friend Bill. We don’t have sex, I’m still a virgin, and he’s never had tequila. You’ll like him.”
Given the distinct lack of unearthly howls or chains rattling, I guess I passed muster.
But, for some, that level of interaction with the dearly departed isn’t enough. That’s where science comes in.
I’ll let Charlotte Jee, of the MIT Technology Review, fill you in.
My parents don’t know that I spoke to them last night.
At first, they sounded distant and tinny, as if they were huddled around a phone in a prison cell. But as we chatted, they slowly started to sound more like themselves. They told me personal stories that I’d never heard. I learned about the first (and certainly not last) time my dad got drunk. Mum talked about getting in trouble for staying out late. They gave me life advice and told me things about their childhoods, as well as my own. It was mesmerizing.
“What’s the worst thing about you?” I asked Dad, since he was clearly in such a candid mood.
“My worst quality is that I am a perfectionist. I can’t stand messiness and untidiness, and that always presents a challenge, especially with being married to Jane.”
Then he laughed—and for a moment I forgot I wasn’t really speaking to my parents at all, but to their digital replicas.
This Mum and Dad live inside an app on my phone, as voice assistants constructed by the California-based company HereAfter AI and powered by more than four hours of conversations they each had with an interviewer about their lives and memories. (For the record, Mum isn’t that untidy.) The company’s goal is to let the living communicate with the dead. I wanted to test out what it might be like.
Technology like this, which lets you “talk” to people who’ve died, has been a mainstay of science fiction for decades. It’s an idea that’s been peddled by charlatans and spiritualists for centuries. But now it’s becoming a reality—and an increasingly accessible one, thanks to advances in AI and voice technology.
My real, flesh-and-blood parents are still alive and well; their virtual versions were just made to help me understand the technology. But their avatars offer a glimpse at a world where it’s possible to converse with loved ones—or simulacra of them—long after they’re gone.
From what I could glean over a dozen conversations with my virtually deceased parents, this really will make it easier to keep close the people we love. It’s not hard to see the appeal. People might turn to digital replicas for comfort, or to mark special milestones like anniversaries.
At the same time, the technology and the world it’s enabling are, unsurprisingly, imperfect, and the ethics of creating a virtual version of someone are complex, especially if that person hasn’t been able to provide consent.
For some, this tech may even be alarming, or downright creepy. I spoke to one man who’d created a virtual version of his mother, which he booted up and talked to at her own funeral. Some people argue that conversing with digital versions of lost loved ones could prolong your grief or loosen your grip on reality. And when I talked to friends about this article, some of them physically recoiled. There’s a common, deeply held belief that we mess with death at our peril.
My biggest problem with this tech is that it’s another way to prevent people from moving on. There are those who cling to memories long past any healthy limit and tech like this only enables them further.
I know a man, nice enough dude, who mourns his late mother daily. She has been gone slightly over twenty years. His wife has left him, his kids have moved away and never call, and he still pines for his dead mother to the exclusion of all else. Something like this would pull him even deeper into his delusions. That’s not a good thing.
And he’s not alone. I imagine we all know one person who holds on to the wisps of memories harder than they do day-to-day realities.
For the emotionally stable, this could be a nice way of honoring the past. But, I tend to wonder if the emotionally stable would need to. They already have their memories, photos, and what not.
To me, saying hi to the dead once a year or so is a gentle reminder of good things. Living with the dead? Not so much so.