China is using AI to raise the dead, and give people one last chance to say goodbye (2023)

  • The rise of generative AI in China has led to people try to recreate their loved ones with the tech.
  • Using old photos, recordings, and messages, they're training chat programs to imitate the dead.
  • The tech has been around for a while, but experts told Insider it can pose serious ethical issues.

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In 2020, a young Chinese software engineer in Hangzhou chanced upon an essay about lip syncing technology. Its premise is relatively simple — using a computer program to match lip movements with speech recordings.

But his grandfather, who died nearly a decade earlier, came to mind.

"Can I see Grandpa again using this technology?" Yu Jialin asked himself.

His journey to recreate his grandfather, documented in April by investigative journalist Tang Yucheng for the state-owned magazine Sixth Tone, is one of several accounts now surfacing in China of people using artificial intelligence to resurrect the dead.

Mixing an assortment of emerging AI technologies, people in the country have been building chat programs — known as griefbots — with the personalities and memories of the deceased, hoping for a chance to speak to their loved ones again.

For Yu, they presented a chance to speak his final words to the man who helped raise him.

The software engineer, now 29, told Tang that he was 17 when his grandfather died.

(Video) AI lets deceased woman address her funeral | Artificial Intelligence tool helps the dead talk | WION

He still regrets two instances when he was harsh to his grandfather. Yu yelled at the older man for interrupting a gaming session once, and on another occasion told his grandfather to stop picking him up from school, Tang reported.

His family stopped mentioning his grandfather after he died, he told Tang. "Everyone in the family was trying their best to forget Grandpa rather than remember him," Yu said.

The Griefbot rides the ChatGPT craze

The griefbot concept has been trialed for years — largely as AI-powered programs that learn how to mimic human beings through their memorabilia, photos, and recordings. But generative AI's rapid advancement in the last year has pushed the power and accessibility of griefbots to a whole new level.

Older models required vast sets of data. Now, laymen or lone engineers like Yu can feed language models with tidbits of a person's past, and recreate almost exactly how they look, speak, and think.

"In today's technology, you don't need too many samples for an AI to learn the style of a person," Haibing Lu, an information and analytics professor at Santa Clara University, told Insider.

Systems like ChatGPT, the popular text-based program that closely imitates human speech, have already learned how most people naturally speak or write, said Lu, whose research focuses on AI.

China is using AI to raise the dead, and give people one last chance to say goodbye (2)

PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty Images

"You only need to tweak the systems a little bit in order to loosely get a 99% similarity to your person. The stark differences will be minimal," Lu said.

For Yu to teach his AI model what his grandfather was like, he retrieved a trove of old letters from his grandmother. She'd exchanged them with Yu's grandfather when they were young, and they revealed a side to the man that even Yu hadn't glimpsed as a child, he told Tang.

The software engineer dug up photos and videos shot more than a decade ago, and found text messages his grandfather sent him, Tang reported.

—Sixth Tone (@SixthTone) April 6, 2023

Yet even given weeks of testing and training, the tech has a long way to go if humans expect something akin to Black Mirror's robot replicas. Yu's bot was clearly limited, and took 10 minutes to respond to each prompt, Tang reported.

"Hey, Grandpa. Guess who I am?" Yu asked the program at one point.

Grandpa delivered a generic response.

"Who you are is not important at all. Life is a beautiful miracle," the bot wrote back, according to Tang.

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But as Yu fed the AI with more information about his grandfather,it started to show a more accurate representation of the man's habits and preferences. For example, it remembered his grandfather's favorite show, he told Tang.

"Happy Teahouse went off the air," Yu told the chatbot.

"That's a shame. The show I want to watch the most is no longer available. I would have liked to watch a few more episodes," the grandfather bot replied.

That was the moment when Yu felt he'd gotten somewhere, he told Tang. The program was eventually sophisticated enough that Yu felt confident he could show his work to his grandmother. She watched silently as her late husband responded to her questions, then thanked her grandson, stood up, and left the room.

Yu told Tang his grandmother needed the chatbot to process her emotions and mourn. "Otherwise, why would she thank me?" he said.

As for himself, he declined to share his intimate conversations with his grandfather bot.

"But I think my grandfather forgave me in the end," he told Tang.

Mourning with the times

It's natural for humans to change the way they mourn as technology evolves, Sue Morris, director of bereavement services at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, told Insider.

In the 1980s, people would write down stories about their loved ones to remember them, said Morris, who teaches psychology at Harvard Medical School. Now, it's far more common in the digital age to keep photos and videos of the departed, she said.

China is using AI to raise the dead, and give people one last chance to say goodbye (3)

JADE GAO/AFP via Getty Images

Psychologists often help grieving clients by asking them to speak to an empty chair as though their loved one were sitting in it, and to imagine the person's response.

"It feels as though these griefbots are the technological step up from that," said Morris.

But griefbots take substantial control away from the user, she added. Many people deal with grief by controlling how and when they process their emotions.

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"You choose when you're going to look at your photos and videos, how long you're going to look at them," she said.

An unexpected trigger, like say, an insensitively timed message from a chatbot, can often overwhelm someone with grief, Morris said. "Maybe 98% of the time, the program is going to say the appropriate thing, but what if it doesn't for a small percentage? Could that then send somebody into more of a downward spiral?" she said.

Still, if griefbots sound offensive to some, history shows that social norms constantly change when it comes to the dead, Mary Frances O'Connor, director of the Grief, Loss and Social Stress Lab in the University of Arizona, told Insider.

When photography became accessible to the public in the 19th century, people would take pictures with their loved ones' corpses and hang the photos in their living rooms, said O'Connor.

"Today, we might think this living room display was morbid, but it was common at the time," O'Connor said.

GPT-powered griefbots gain ground in China

As generative AI gains traction in China, so have stories of new griefbots. Another Chinese man who used AI to "resurrect" a loved one — a 24-year-old Shanghai blogger going by the name Wu Wuliu — went viral on social media in March when he said he'd trained a chatbot to mimic his dead grandmother.

Like Yu's grandfather bot, Wu's bot produced limited responses. "But I feel good being able to look at grandma and talk more with her," he said.

China is using AI to raise the dead, and give people one last chance to say goodbye (4)

Screenshot/BiliBili, 吴伍六

Wu said he used ChatGPT, though access to the platform has been limited in China since February 24.

"I wish I'd seen this video sooner," a top comment on Wu's page read. "My grandmother passed away last winter. I was caught off guard. I don't have any audio recordings or high definition photos of her."

And during this year's annual Tomb Sweeping Festival, a Chinese cemetery used GPT software and voice cloning AI to recreate people who were being buried at its facilities, YiCai reported. The cemetery said thousands of people have used its platform, and that it costs around $7,300 to recreate a dead person, per YiCai.

Seeking human connection from a virtual bot has become common in China. Xiaoice, a 2018 Chinese chatbot assistant that takes the appearance of a teenage girl, has more than 660 million users. She can act as a confidant or friend, and can receive gifts from fans, said Microsoft, which runs the flagship bot.

China is using AI to raise the dead, and give people one last chance to say goodbye (5)

VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Earlier versions of griefbots have established footholds elsewhere in the world. Several companies and research projects in the US have offered griefbots, such as Replika, which now markets itself as a social AI app.

(Video) Stunning AI shows how it would kill 90%. w Elon Musk.

In Canada, a man named Joshua Barbeau digitally remade his girlfriend in 2021 using Project December — an older program built with the predecessor to current GPT software. Barbeau's girlfriend died from a rare liver disease eight years earlier, and he told The San Francisco Chronicle that speaking to the chatbot helped him heal from his loss.

Then there's the South Korean documentary "Meeting You," which featured a young mother tearfully reuniting with her deceased 7-year-old daughter in virtual reality. Viewers worried the show was emotionally manipulative, though the mother in the episode was thankful for the experience, and said it was like she had a "nice dream."

Griefbots are bound to be controversial

Yet the griefbot and its byproducts can pose serious ethical dilemmas, said Lu, the infoanalytics professor.

A dead person's identity can be easy pickings for a fraudster, he said. They can feed that person's data to an AI, then pretend they're a medium who communicates with the person's spirit, Lu said.

"And there's no scientific proof that a psychic's powers are valid, right? No one can invalidate that," he said.

Then there's the challenge of getting consent from the dead, Lu said.

"In a future where everyone knows about this technology, maybe you can sign a document that says your descendants can use your knowledge, or to forbid it," Lu said.

HereAfter.AI, a US-based company, offers an opt-in experience for people to upload their own personalities online. An AI learns about each person through submitted photos, audio logs, and questionnaires, and makes a digital avatar that can talk to their friends and families after they die.

Its founder, James Vlahos, spent months recording his terminally-ill father recounting memories and reminiscing about life, feeding them to a "Dadbot" that could live on when the man could not.

But Lu said there's little chance that the typical person who dies nowadays would have given that kind of go-ahead. And if they haven't, it would be problematic even for their children or grandchildren to use their personal information, he added.

"It doesn't mean that if a person has passed away, that other people have the right to disclose their personal privacy, even if it's to immediate family members," Lu said.

As for Yu, the software engineer — his grandfather bot is no more. Yu decided to delete the grandfather bot, telling Sixth Tone that he was afraid of getting overly reliant on the AI for emotional support.

(Video) Hot Robot At SXSW Says She Wants To Destroy Humans | The Pulse

"These emotions might have overwhelmed me too much to work and live my life," he told Tang.


China is using AI to raise the dead, and give people one last chance to say goodbye? ›

The rise of generative AI in China has led to people try to recreate their loved ones with the tech. Using old photos, recordings, and messages, they're training chat programs to imitate the dead. The tech has been around for a while, but experts told Insider it can pose serious ethical issues.

What is China's stance on AI? ›

As China continues expanding its AI industry, there are ethical and regulatory concerns yet to be addressed, such as data control and user privacy. In 2021, China published the Data Security Law of the People's Republic of China, its first national law addressing AI-related ethical concerns.

Is China taking the lead in AI? ›

China and the United States are engaged in a heated race to lead in artificial intelligence (AI) research. China has been pouring billions into AI research and development in its goal to become a global leader in AI by 2030.

Which country is leading in artificial intelligence? ›

The United States is the clear leader in AI development, with major tech companies headquartered there leading the charge. The United States has indisputably become the primary hub for artificial intelligence development, with tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft at the forefront of AI-driven research.

Is China advanced in AI? ›

Yang's research shows China exporting huge amounts of AI technology, dwarfing its contributions in other frontier technology sectors. Yang also demonstrated that autocratic regimes around the world have a particular interest in AI.

Is China about to overtake America in AI research? ›

TOKYO/BEIJING -- China is the undisputed champion in artificial intelligence research papers, a Nikkei study shows, far surpassing the U.S. in both quantity and quality.

Does AI control the world? ›

The Answer, No. AI will not take over the world. The notion is science fiction.

Is the US still the leader in AI? ›

The U.S. currently leads in AI, but China is rapidly catching up and has declared its intent to be the global leader by 2030.

Is China overtaking the US in technology? ›

“The critical technology tracker shows that, for some technologies, all of the world's top 10 leading research institutions are based in China and are collectively generating nine times more high-impact research papers than the second-ranked country (most often the US).”

Is China beating the US in innovation? ›

China has a significant lead in key areas of technology compared to the U.S. The cutting edge of technology in 2023 is artificial intelligence, with the (sometimes creepy) ChatGPT nearing an “iPhone moment” as a revolutionary tool that is being adopted at record speed.

Who is the most powerful artificial intelligence in the world? ›

Google DeepMind — AlphaGo

AlphaGo is considered to be one of the most intelligent AI systems in the industry due to its advanced capabilities and its ability to learn and adapt over time.

Who invented AI? ›

The earliest substantial work in the field of artificial intelligence was done in the mid-20th century by the British logician and computer pioneer Alan Mathison Turing.

What is the most advanced technology in the world? ›

The most important Advanced Technology Trend for 2023 is the prominence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and AI-based solutions.

When AI runs the world? ›

An AI takeover is a hypothetical scenario in which an artificial intelligence (AI) becomes the dominant form of intelligence on Earth, as computer programs or robots effectively take the control of the planet away from the human species.

Which city in China is AI controlled? ›


Alibaba's AI City Brain system has been adopted into Hangzhou's city management since 2016 where it helps monitor traffic conditions and adjust traffic lights to reduce travel time and even emergency vehicle response time.

What does China use instead of Google? ›

Baidu is China's largest and most widely used search engine, much like Google in the U.S.

Is China more advanced than the US now? ›

In other words, on a proportional basis, China is now roughly 75 percent as advanced in innovation and advanced-industry production as the United States. If this relative growth continues apace, China will surpass the United States by 2035.

Who will be most affected by AI? ›

According to the report, jobs in agriculture, mining and manufacturing are the least exposed to generative AI, while jobs in the information processing industries, like IT, are the most exposed because jobs that use "programming and writing skills" are more closely related to GPT's capabilities.

Will AI replace us in the future? ›

Regardless of how well AI machines are programmed to respond to humans, it is unlikely that humans will ever develop such a strong emotional connection with these machines. Hence, AI cannot replace humans, especially as connecting with others is vital for business growth.

Could AI wipe out humanity? ›

Advanced artificial intelligence could pose a catastrophic risk to humanity and wipe out entire civilisations, a new study warns.

What did Elon Musk say about AI? ›

During the interview last week with Mr. Carlson, Mr. Musk said OpenAI was no longer serving as a check on the power of tech giants. He wanted to build TruthGPT, he said, “a maximum-truth-seeking A.I. that tries to understand the nature of the universe.”

Why is AI a threat to humanity? ›

We describe three such main ways misused narrow AI serves as a threat to human health: through increasing opportunities for control and manipulation of people; enhancing and dehumanising lethal weapon capacity and by rendering human labour increasingly obsolescent.

Is the US military using AI? ›

The DoD is also leading an experiment that uses data, analytics, and artificial intelligence to inform solutions related to Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2).

Who will be replaced by AI? ›

Is AI coming for your job? These are the workers who will be replaced first, according to experts
  • Jobs most impacted by AI. Advertisement. ...
  • Coders/programmers. ...
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  • Customer service. ...
  • Data entry and analysis.
6 days ago

Who is the head of AI at humans? ›

Nicu Sebe is currently leading the research in multimedia information retrieval and human-computer interaction in computer vision applications at the University of Trento, Italy.

Does China have better military technology than US? ›

Although China continues to lag the United States in terms of aggregate military hardware and operational skills, it has improved its relative capabilities in many critical areas.

What year will China surpass the US? ›

Rajah last year projected that while China would become the world's biggest economy by 2030, “its size advantage over America would be slim and it would remain far less prosperous and productive per person than the United States and other rich countries, even by mid-century.” The Japan Center for Economic Research, ...

What rank is China technology in the world? ›

11th China ranks 11th among the 132 economies featured in the GII 2022. The Global Innovation Index (GII) ranks world economies according to their innovation capabilities. Consisting of roughly 80 indicators, grouped into innovation inputs and outputs, the GII aims to capture the multi-dimensional facets of innovation.

Will the US economy outgrow China? ›

China's gross domestic product will surpass that of the U.S. in about 2035, the Goldman group led by Kevin Daly and Tadas Gedminas wrote, while India's GDP will narrowly surpass the U.S.' in about 2075.

Is America the leader in innovation? ›

The United States continues to rank as a top destination for businesses to invest in or start new companies, a United Nations report shows. Northern America — consisting of the U.S. and Canada — is the top “innovation” region in the world, according to the U.N.'s Global Innovation Index 2019.

Why are US companies pulling out of China? ›

For the first time in about 25 years, China is not a top three investment priority for a majority of US firms, with geopolitical tensions and domestic economic issues driving businesses to increasingly focus elsewhere, according to a new report.

Who is more powerful AI or human? ›

People make use of the memory, processing capabilities, and cognitive talents that their brains provide. The processing of data and commands is essential to the operation of AI-powered devices. When it comes to speed, humans are no match for artificial intelligence or robots.

Will Open AI replace Google? ›

"No, ChatGPT is a language model developed by OpenAI, while Google is a search engine and technology company that offers a wide range of products and services. While ChatGPT can answer questions and provide information, it is not designed to replace Google.

Do any strong AI exist? ›

Examples of Strong AI. Because it doesn't actually exist yet, the only true examples of AGI are found in works of science fiction like Star Trek: The Next Generation, Wall-E and Her — and most of the time they either depict a utopian version of this technology, or a dystopian one.

Who is called the father of AI? ›

ohn McCarthy, father of artificial intelligence, in 2006, five years before his death.

Who is the father of AI intelligence? ›

Father of Artificial Intelligence is John McCarthy.

What was AI originally created for? ›

AI boom: 1980-1987

1980: First conference of the AAAI was held at Stanford. 1980: The first expert system came into the commercial market, known as XCON (expert configurer). It was designed to assist in the ordering of computer systems by automatically picking components based on the customer's needs.

Is Japan more advanced than China? ›

One analyst pointed out that although Japan was far ahead of China in terms of its more advanced governance system and industrial sector, it is an economy facing a huge number of headwinds. Such technological innovation is affecting virtually all fields.

Who will rule the world in 2100? ›

Africa and the Arab World will shape our future, while Europe and Asia will recede in their influence. By the end of the century, the world will be multipolar, with India, Nigeria, China, and the US the dominant powers. This will truly be a new world and one we should be preparing for today.”

What country has the most advanced military technology? ›

The country with the most advanced military technology is the United States of America (USA). Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom are the other countries with the most advanced military technology in the world.

What jobs AI can't replace? ›

  • May 19, 2023, 02:59 PM IST. 10 jobs AI can't replace. ...
  • Doctor. AI can't replace health professionals, as they provide empathy and care to patients.
  • Transport and Delivery Jobs. ...
  • Trade jobs. ...
  • Architects. ...
  • Social worker. ...
  • Event planners. ...
  • Lawyers.
May 19, 2023

Will AI become self aware? ›

The CEO of Alphabet's DeepMind said there's a possibility that AI could become self-aware one day. This means that AI would have feelings and emotions that mimic those of humans. DeepMind is an AI research lab that was co-founded in 2010 by Demis Hassabis.

Will machines take over humans in 100 years? ›

Speaking at the Zeitgeist conference in London, Hawking said: "Computers will overtake humans with AI at some within the next 100 years. When that happens, we need to make sure the computers have goals aligned with ours," according to a report in Geek.

Which country is the world leader in AI? ›

The United States is the clear leader in AI development, with major tech companies headquartered there leading the charge. The United States has indisputably become the primary hub for artificial intelligence development, with tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft at the forefront of AI-driven research.

Which country owns AI? ›

ai is the Internet country code top-level domain (ccTLD) for Anguilla, a British Overseas Territory in the Caribbean. It is administered by the government of Anguilla.

Who is the Chinese leader in AI? ›

Leading Industrial Players

Leading AI-centric companies and start-ups include Baidu, Tencent, Alibaba, SenseTime and Yitu Technology.

Is Bing blocked in China? ›

In fact, Microsoft went as far as changing their default search engine in China from Bing to the Chinese search engine, Baidu. The reason why Bing is blocked in China is the same reason many other websites are blocked. Bing allows users to access information freely available and published all over the world.

Why does China not allow Google? ›

2010–2016: Giving up search service

In January 2010, Google announced that, in response to a Chinese-originated hacking attack on them and other US tech companies, they were no longer willing to censor searches in China and would pull out of the country completely if necessary.

What is the Chinese room objection to strong AI? ›

The Chinese room argument holds that a digital computer executing a program cannot have a "mind", "understanding", or "consciousness", regardless of how intelligently or human-like the program may make the computer behave.

Does the Chinese room argument refute the possibility of AI? ›

Conclusion: Therefore, the implemented programs are not by themselves constitutive of, nor sufficient for, minds. In short, Strong Artificial Intelligence is false. The Chinese Room Argument is incidentally also a refutation of the Turing Test and other forms of logical behaviorism.

Why is China the best place for AI implementation? ›

China is the best place for AI implementation today, because the vast amount of data that's available in China.

What is China's AI strategy for 2030? ›

The main goal is to foster the national AI sector to leading positions by 2030, overtaking its closest rival, the United States. To meet this challenge, China launched a strategic program, and by 2020 its implementation has already provided massive success in the volume of AI patenting and related scientific articles.

What is the biggest danger of artificial intelligence? ›

These systems can generate untruthful, biased and otherwise toxic information. Systems like GPT-4 get facts wrong and make up information, a phenomenon called “hallucination.” Companies are working on these problems.

Can AI have consciousness? ›

The question of whether artificial intelligence can have consciousness is a complex and multifaceted one. While some researchers argue that AI may be capable of subjective experience and consciousness, others put forth arguments to suggest that machines are fundamentally incapable of having these experiences.

Has any AI passed the Turing test? ›

In the decade since, many more programs have purported to pass the Turing test. Most recently, Google's AI LaMDA passed the test and even controversially convinced a Google engineer that it was “sentient.”

Will AI outsmart humans yes or no why? ›

The AI can outsmart humans, finding solutions that fulfill a brief but in ways that misalign with the creator's intent. On a simulator, that doesn't matter. But in the real world, the outcomes could be a lot more insidious. Here are five more stories showing the creative ingenuity of AI.

Will AI help the world or harm it? ›

On a far grander scale, AI is poised to have a major effect on sustainability, climate change and environmental issues. Ideally and partly through the use of sophisticated sensors, cities will become less congested, less polluted and generally more livable.

Will AI solve all our problems? ›

Not Every Problem Can Be Solved

Many problems are solvable using a Turing machine and therefore can be solved on a computer, while many others are not. For example, the domino problem, a variation of the tiling problem formulated by Chinese American mathematician Hao Wang in 1961, is not solvable.

Where AI is better than humans? ›

Computers have the ability to process far more information at a higher pace than individuals do. In the instance that the human mind can answer a mathematical problem in five minutes, artificial intelligence is capable of solving ten problems in one minute.

Does China have the best technology in the world? ›

China leads in 37 of 44 technologies tracked in a year-long project by thinktank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. The fields include electric batteries, hypersonics and advanced radio-frequency communications such as 5G and 6G.

What will AI predict for the world? ›

AI predicts the world may likely to hit a key warming threshold in 10-12 years The world will likely breach the internationally agreed-upon climate change threshold in about a decade, artificial intelligence predicts in a new study that's more pessimistic than previous modeling.

How AI will change the world by 2030? ›

How AI will change the world by 2030, according to eight experts: Tech could solve the energy crisis, add trillions to the global economy… or wipe out the human race. By 2030, Artificial Intelligence could be looking after our elderly, making films and teaching lessons — or it could have wiped out the human race.

Will China lead the world in AI by 2030? ›

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the superpower of this era—and the main answer to China's pursuit of world domination. By 2030, the country wants to become the world's largest hub for AI innovation, with the AI industry projected to hit a valuation of $202.57 billion by 2026.


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