With the advent of technology, grieving for a deceased friend or loved one has become more complicated. Prior to the digital age, someone would leave behind physical items like special keepsakes or property. Now, a whole intangible world remains—text messages, emails, social media profiles are a new realm of remembrance we’re still learning how to tackle. Facebook, for instance, allows you to select the future of your account should you pass away, one option being a Memorial Account.
Inspired by Grief
Eugenia Kuyda is helping to take the idea of online memorialization to the next level. She’s the co-founder of Luka, an artificial intelligence startup whose first product was a messenger app for interacting with AI bots. While building the company, Kuyda lost her best friend Roman Mazurenko suddenly and tragically. He was later cremated, so there was no grave to visit—all she had left were text messages and photos.
The loss was an inspiration for a new direction for Luka. Previously, their bots had been geared towards getting you a dinner reservation. Because of Kudya’s grief, she embarked on another—more controversial—path. She sought to create an online bot that reflected Mazurenko, one that would mimic his speech patterns and make it seem like you were really talking to him. It’s not unlike an episode of the television show Black Mirror, in which a bereaved woman allows herself to believe she’s really talking to her dead partner through an online android service.
Eugenia Kuyda (right) and her friend Roman Mazurenko, who inspired the bot.
Built with Text Messages
To construct an artificial Mazurenko, Kuyda reached out to his close friends and family members, asking them if she could have their text messages. They shared more than 8,000 lines of text that covered a variety of subjects. Then, it was up to engineers at Luka to model the data so that it actually felt like their friend and son. “The team building Luka is really good with natural language processing,” Mazurenko’s longtime friend Sergey Fayfer told The Verge. “The question wasn’t about the technical possibility. It was: how is it going to feel emotionally?”
This form of artificial intelligence uses faux neural networks that imitate the ability of the brain to learn—it’s the same type of tech as Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri. Luka built their neural network in Russian (Mazurenko’s native tongue) and then they trained the system to speak in his voice. The actual percentage of the bot’s responses that were his actual words were small, but it would respond in them whenever possible.
Critical Reception and Implications
On May 24, the Roman bot on the Luka app went live. Responses were generally positive, but a small number of users—those familiar with the young man—were disturbed. They felt that it was a joke, minimizing the person he was, and not a memorial. Mazurenko’s father thought that it gave “incorrect” responses than expected, and thus didn’t accurately reflect his son.
Those that appreciated the Roman bot found it therapeutic. They used the messaging to ask artificial Mazurenko advice or vent their frustration and problems—the bot would listen without wanting anything in return. Perhaps more importantly they were able to tell him they missed him and get a response.
Kuyda’s bot isn’t perfect, but the idea will only improve as artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticated. This iteration, despite its early adoption, already has implications that we’ll struggle to grapple with. It makes us question, does this sort of interaction ease the pain of loss or lengthen the grieving process? Yes, it’s a new way of keeping our memory alive, but it also brings up ethical concerns—namely, how do we want to leave our digital legacy? In what way do we want to be remembered?
People reveal themselves to others differently. Because so many of Mazurenko’s text messages were fed into the bot, it inadvertently showed another side to his friends and family—one they might’ve been unfamiliar with, and ultimately, change the way they view the real Mazurenko.