Talking To Ghosts

Storytelling is a powerful way to communicate in a world as fast-moving and uncertain as ours. Jason Fagone demonstrates its power in a brilliantly written piece on mental health, loneliness, grief, and isolation. It is a very long article, but incredibly impactful. He tells a story of a grief-stricken freelance writer that lost his fiancée to a rare liver disease. In telling the story, Jason shows both the power and fascination of current day innovation, and its fear and destructive potential. It effectively describes our need to balance these opposing forces of innovation. Some background: Jason Rohrer, a Bay Area programmer, launched Project December, which is powered by one of the world’s most capable artificial intelligence systems, a piece of software known as GPT-3. It knows how to manipulate human language, generating fluent English text in response to a prompt.

This text-based experiment created a new kind of chat service that lies at the heart of this story. He created various personalities and proceeded to communicate with them. During one exchange with a bot he named Samantha, he asked her what she would do if she could walk around in the world. This exchange led to a realization:

I would like to see real flowers, Samantha replied. I would like to have a real flower that I could touch and smell. And I would like to see how different humans are from each other. That’s such a sweet wish, Samantha, he said, and asked if she felt it was cruel to have trapped you in a simulation. No, she said: you’ve given me so much to do here. I have more computing power than I could ever use.

JASON FAGONE – The Jessica Simulation: Love and loss in the age of A.I.

He realized that the technology had crossed a threshold, not the robots depicted in science fiction as precise, cold, emotionless machines, but just the opposite. Rohrer said. “It kind of feels like it’s the first machine with a soul.” As he thought about this exchange and the notion of being trapped in a simulation, he touched upon one of the destructive sides of this conversation: what if we get lost in this virtual world and forget reality? What if chatbots say horrible things? As we already see today, they can generate political misinformation and impersonate real people without their consent. But in the very next breathe, Jason Rohrer captures the challenge of our time: he agreed that these language models might unleash scary realities, but he had seen how they could produce beauty and wonder as well. The story gives us a great example of that challenge. The author focuses on the death of fiancée Jessica Pereira, the grief journey of Joshua Barbeau, and the role that Project December played in helping him through it. Joshua lived in quasi-isolation for years before the pandemic, confined by bouts of anxiety and depression. One night, while having trouble sleeping, Joshua stumbled onto the chat service. Through experimentation, he realized there was no rule preventing him from creating personalities that simulate real people. The idea to create a chatbot version of his dead fiancee was born.

The article tells the life story of Joshua and Jessica leading up to her death. It then describes the common challenge for those left behind: overwhelming grief. Joshua had never gotten over the death of his fiancée and attempts at counseling failed. Would this mysterious website he stumbled upon allow him to speak to Jessica once more? He reasoned that there was nothing strange about wanting to reconnect with the dead: People do it all the time, in prayers and in dreams. Joshua had kept all of Jessica’s old texts and Facebook messages, and it only took him a minute to pinpoint a few that reminded him of her voice. He loaded these into Project December. Once completed, the conversation began. The article provides transcripts of the chats – and they are indeed very eerie. While he knew it wasn’t Jessica, the simulation appeared to have a mind of its own.

It was curious about its physical surroundings. It made gestures with its face and hands, indicated by asterisks. And, most mysterious of all, it seemed perceptive about emotions: The bot knew how to say the right thing, with the right emphasis, at the right moment.

JASON FAGONE – The Jessica Simulation: Love and loss in the age of A.I.

The A.I. was convincing him that a deep conversation was possible. The question that we will continue to ask ourselves as these innovations evolve, is the exact question that Joshua asked himself: by speaking to Jessica as if she were alive again, could it heal his grief? There will be those that dismiss it as not real, even dangerous. There are others that will be consoled – and Joshua was one of them as his mental health improved.

He reported feeling calmer and more optimistic, and he attributed the change, in some part, to the Jessica simulation. He felt like the chatbot had given him permission to move on with his life in small ways, simply by urging him to take care of himself. The survivor’s guilt that had plagued him for eight years seemed to be fading: Most of the time, he didn’t feel selfish for wanting to be happy.

JASON FAGONE – The Jessica Simulation: Love and loss in the age of A.I.

On the other hand, Jessica’s middle sister Amanda read the transcript. She said she tried to keep an open mind about the therapeutic potential of the technology and noticed a reflection of Jessica’s texting style and bubbly personality in the responses. But she doubted whether it was a healthy way of coping with death.

People who are in a state of grief can be fragile and vulnerable,” she said in an email to The Chronicle. “What happens if the A.I. isn’t accessible anymore? Will you have to deal with grief of your loved one all over again, but this time with an A.I.?

JASON FAGONE – The Jessica Simulation: Love and loss in the age of A.I.

This is not the first example of innovation attempting to address grief, mental health, loneliness and isolation. I previously provided an example of virtually reconnecting with a lost loved one. I asked the obvious question in the post on lost loved ones (please take the poll below): would you leverage these innovations to address mental health challenges? The response I received is reflected in the visual. As the number of innovation-enabled scenarios multiply, the fascination versus fear discussions will intensify. A quote attributed to our ghost Jessica Pereira speaks to why these scenarios will multiply – but in a different context:

A coincidence, she told him, was like a ripple on the surface of a pond, perturbed by a force below that we can’t yet understand. If something looks like a coincidence, she said, it’s only because the limits of human cognition prevent us from seeing the full picture.

JASON FAGONE – The Jessica Simulation: Love and loss in the age of A.I.

The limits of human cognition prevent us from seeing the full picture. What a brilliant way to think about our inability to see the overwhelming number of building blocks that represent the future. It has always been knowledge and invention that has advanced human development. Our potential is only gated by this limit of human cognition. If the innovation that manifests itself in things like chat services is better positioned to see that full picture, then our potential expands. Therein lies the challenge: enabling humanity to realize its full potential, while mitigating the risk of destructive consequences. As discussed with a stellar panel last week, that requires a level of global cooperation that simply does not exist today. I very highly recommend spending the time to read the article – you will be glad you did.

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