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James Vlahos: How to Be Remembered When You’ll Never Be Forgotten

James Vlahos

Fatherly’Letters to Boys project offers boys (and the men raising them) guidance in the form of heartfelt advice given generously by great men who show us how to take that crucial first step in confronting seemingly unsolvable issues — by offering honest words. Read all the letters here, or share your own.

Dear Boys,

Your favorite video games, Minecraft and Terraria, let you respawn after you die. But you already know that life doesn’t work that way. People vanish for good, leaving nothing but their stuff and a smattering of information.

Preserving memories of loved ones who have passed away is a challenge that has vexed humankind for our entire history. That’s why, when we found out a few years ago that that my dad was dying of cancer, I turned to artificial intelligence to keep memories of him alive. First I sat down with him and recorded his life story. Then I used everything I learned, along with a lifetime of knowledge from knowing my dad, to program what I called the Dadbot — a chatbot avatar of him, accessible over Facebook Messenger, that interactively shares his life story and little parts of his personality through text messages and audio clips of his voice.

It’s unlikely that someone will manually create a legacy-preserving bot for me or for you; this requires a huge amount of work. Instead, if the technology becomes widespread, the process will be largely automated. Computers will build avatars of people to help keep them virtually alive long after they have gone. But machines will not be able to create Dadbots, Mombots, and Spousebots from nothing. They will need data; information from you, about you.

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Where will they get it? Whether or not I like it (I mostly don’t), you guys will soon start feeding the social media beast. You’ll take more photos and videos in a year than your grandparents did in full lifetimes. You will choose what you post, text, email, save to the cloud, and with these choices, you will be providing the raw materials — whether you realize it or not — for future computer scientists to build a future digital avatar of you. Decades from now, when that digital avatar comes to life, it may be a faithful representation. Alternately, it may be a monster, an incomplete and unrecognizable distortion of who you really are.

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The Dadbot was never going to be a monster. I know this is corny, but this project was created by hand, with love. When a social media or internet giant creates your avatar years from now, they won’t have the same motivation or methodology. Instead, neural networks will ingest vast troves of your social media posts and other digital output and scan them for statistical patterns: clumps of words that tend to recur. Instances where Statement A from a friend tends to trigger Statement B from you. Utterances that, when compared with those by millions of other people on planet Earth, can be tagged as representing happiness, excitement, or anger.

So the raw materials that neural networks devour matter a lot. If your texts, tweets, and selfies truly capture your voice and interests, you’ll breathe life into your avatar. But if they say and show stupid things, this will be reflected, too, maybe to an unfair degree. This is why it’s truly important you try your hardest to not do stupid things when there is a computer or phone anywhere near you. You need to be paranoid. You don’t merely have to fear that a racist, sexist, or otherwise inappropriate remark will be dredged up by somebody in a few years. It may haunt your legacy forever, letting the monster avatar trample the real you. 

You also need to be proactive. Posts, shares, and texts at best represent only a fraction of your full self. So instead of forcing computers to satiate themselves on the junk food of social media ephemera, serve them home-cooked, organic food. Take the time to write down important, humorous, revealing, or otherwise memorable stories about your life. Sit down and audio record a conventional oral history. The computer programmers of the future, and computers themselves, will then have richer, truer data from which to create your digital avatar.

Maybe I was wrong; maybe you really can respawn. Eternity is up to you.

Love,

Dad

James Vlahos is a tech journalist and author of Talk to Me: How Voice Computing Will Change the Way We Live, Work, and Think. “Dadbot,” the AI version of his dad he documented in a Wired magazine cover story recently turned two. He currently lives with his two boys in Northern California.

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