Dadbot, Wifebot, Friendbot: The Future of Memorializing Avatars
In 2016, when my family found out that my father was dying from cancer, I did something that at the time felt completely obvious: I started building a chatbot replica of him.
I simply wanted to create an interactive way to share key parts of his life story.
I was not under any delusion that the Dadbot, as I soon began calling it, would be a true avatar of him. From my research about the voice computing revolution—Siri, Alexa, the Google Assistant—I knew that fully humanlike AIs, like you see in the movies, were a vast ways from technological reality. Replicating my dad in any real sense was never the goal, anyway; that notion gave me the creeps.
Instead, I simply wanted to create an interactive way to share key parts of his life story: facts about his ancestors in Greece. Memories from growing up. Stories about his hobbies, family life, and career. And I wanted the Dadbot, which sent text messages and audio clips over Facebook Messenger, to remind me of his personality—warm, erudite, and funny. So I programmed it to use his distinctive phrasings; to tell a few of his signature jokes and sing his favorite songs.
While creating the Dadbot, a laborious undertaking that sprawled into 2017, I fixated on two things. The first was getting the programming right, which I did using a conversational agent authoring platform called PullString. The second, far more wrenching concern was my father's health. Failing to improve after chemotherapy and immunotherapy, and steadily losing energy, weight, and the animating sparkle of life, he died on February 9.
John Vlahos at a family reunion in the summer of 2016, a few months after his cancer diagnosis.
(Courtesy James Vlahos)
After a magazine article that I wrote about the Dadbot came out in the summer of 2017, messages poured in from readers. While most people simply expressed sympathy, some conveyed a more urgent message: They wanted their own memorializing chatbots. One man implored me to make a bot for him; he had been diagnosed with cancer and wanted his six-month-old daughter to have a way to remember him. A technology entrepreneur needed advice on replicating what I did for her father, who had stage IV cancer. And a teacher in India asked me to engineer a conversational replica of her son, who had recently been struck and killed by a bus.
Journalists from around the world also got in touch for interviews, and they inevitably came around to the same question. Will virtual immortality, they asked, ever become a business?
The prospect of this happening had never crossed my mind. I was consumed by my father's struggle and my own grief. But the notion has since become head-slappingly obvious. I am not the only person to confront the loss of a loved one; the experience is universal. And I am not alone in craving a way to keep memories alive. Of course people like the ones who wrote me will get Dadbots, Mombots, and Childbots of their own. If a moonlighting writer like me can create a minimum viable product, then a company employing actual computer scientists could do much more.
But this prospect raises unanswered and unsettling questions. For businesses, profit, and not some deeply personal mission, will be the motivation. This shift will raise issues that I didn't have to confront. To make money, a virtual immortality company could follow the lucrative but controversial business model that has worked so well for Google and Facebook. To wit, a company could provide the memorializing chatbot for free and then find ways to monetize the attention and data of whoever communicated with it. Given the copious amount of personal information flowing back and forth in conversations with replica bots, this would be a data gold mine for the company—and a massive privacy risk for users.
Virtual immortality as commercial product will doubtless become more sophisticated.
Alternately, a company could charge for memorializing avatars, perhaps with an annual subscription fee. This would put the business in a powerful position. Imagine the fee getting hiked each year. A customer like me would find himself facing a terrible decision—grit my teeth and keep paying, or be forced to pull the plug on the best, closest reminder of a loved one that I have. The same person would effectively wind up dying twice.
Another way that a beloved digital avatar could die is if the company that creates it ceases to exist. This is no mere academic concern for me: Earlier this year, PullString was swallowed up by Apple. I'm still able to access the Dadbot on my own computer, fortunately, but the acquisition means that other friends and family members can no longer chat with him remotely.
Startups like PullString, of course, are characterized by impermanence; they tend to get snapped up by bigger companies or run out of venture capital and fold. But even if big players like, say, Facebook or Google get into the virtual immortality game, we can't count on them existing even a few decades from now, which means that the avatars enabled by their technology would die, too.
The permanence problem is the biggest hurdle faced by the fledgling enterprise of virtual immortality. So some entrepreneurs are attempting to enable avatars whose existence isn't reliant upon any one company or set of computer servers. "By leveraging the power of blockchain and decentralized software to replicate information, we help users create avatars that live on forever," says Alex Roy, the founder and CEO of the startup Everlife.ai. But until this type of solution exists, give props to conventional technology for preserving memories: printed photos and words on paper can last for centuries.
The fidelity of avatars—just how lifelike they are—also raises serious concerns. Before I started creating the Dadbot, I worried that the tech might be just good enough to remind my family of the man it emulated, but so far off from my real father that it gave us all the creeps. But because the Dadbot was a simple chatbot and not some all-knowing AI, and because the interface was a messaging app, there was no danger of him encroaching on the reality of my actual dad.
But virtual immortality as commercial product will doubtless become more sophisticated. Avatars will have brains built by teams of computer scientists employing the latest techniques in conversational AI. The replicas will not just text but also speak, using synthetic voices that emulate the ones of the people being memorialized. They may even come to life as animated clones on computer screens or in 3D with the help of virtual reality headsets.
What fascinates me is how technology can help to preserve the past—genuine facts and memories from peoples' lives.
These are all lines that I don't personally want to cross; replicating my dad was never the goal. I also never aspired to have some synthetic version of him that continued to exist in the present, capable of acquiring knowledge about the world or my life and of reacting to it in real time.
Instead, what fascinates me is how technology can help to preserve the past—genuine facts and memories from people's lives—and their actual voices so that their stories can be shared interactively after they have gone. I'm working on ideas for doing this via voice computing platforms like Alexa and Assistant, and while I don't have all of the answers yet, I'm excited to figure out what might be possible.
[Adapted from Talk to Me: How Voice Computing Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Think (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 26, 2019).]
Inside the Atlantis Space Shuttle, astronauts waited for liftoff. At T-minus six seconds, the main engines ignited, rattling the capsule “like a skyscraper in an earthquake,” according to astronaut Tom Jones, describing the 1988 launch in Air & Space Magazine. Liftoff came with what felt like “a massive kick in the back,” he recalled, along with more shaking. As the rocket accelerated to three times the force of gravity on Earth, “It felt as if two of my friends were standing on my chest and wouldn’t get off!” Finally, at 25 times the speed of sound, Atlantis reached orbit. The main engines cut off, and the astronauts were weightless.
Since 1961, NASA has sent hundreds of astronauts into space while working to making their voyages safer and smoother. Yet, challenges remain. Weightlessness may look amusing when watched from Earth, but it has myriad effects on cognition, movement and other functions. When missions to space stretch to six months or longer, microgravity can harm astronauts’ health and performance, making it more difficult to operate their spacecraft.
Yesterday, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio returned to Earth after over one year, the longest single spaceflight for a U.S. astronaut. But this is just the start; longer and more complex missions into deep space loom ahead, from returning to the moon in 2025 to eventually sending humans to Mars. Understanding how spaceflight affects the body is vital to success. By studying these impacts, NASA aims to help astronauts perform in space as well as they do on Earth.
The dangers of microgravity are real
A NASA report published in 2016 details a long list of incidents and near-misses caused – at least partly – by space-induced changes in astronauts’ vision and coordination. These issues make it harder to move with precision and to judge distance and velocity.
According to the report, in 1997, a resupply ship collided with the Mir space station, possibly because a crew member bumped into the commander during the final docking maneuver. This mishap caused significant damage to the space station.
Returns to Earth suffered from problems, too. The same report notes that touchdown speeds during the first 100 space shuttle landings were “outside acceptable limits. The fastest landing on record – 224 knots (258 miles) per hour – was linked to the commander’s momentary spatial disorientation.” Earlier, each of the six Apollo crews that landed on the moon had difficulty recognizing moon landmarks and estimating distances. For example, Apollo 15 landed in an unplanned area, ultimately straddling the rim of a five-foot deep crater on the moon, harming one of its engines.
Spaceflight causes unique stresses on astronauts’ brains and central nervous systems. NASA is working to reduce these harmful effects.
Space messes up your brain
In space, astronauts face the challenges of microgravity, ionizing radiation, social isolation, high workloads, altered circadian rhythms, monotony, confined living quarters and a high-risk environment. Among these issues, microgravity is one of the most consequential in terms of physiological changes. It changes the brain’s structure and its functioning, which can hurt astronauts’ performance.
The brain shifts upwards within the skull, displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes.
That’s partly because of how being in space alters blood flow. On Earth, gravity pulls our blood and other internal fluids toward our feet, but our circulatory valves ensure that the fluids are evenly distributed throughout the body. In space, there’s not enough gravity to pull the fluids down, and they shift up, says Rachael D. Seidler, a physiologist specializing in spaceflight at the University of Florida and principal investigator on many space-related studies. The head swells and legs appear thinner, causing what astronauts call “puffy face chicken legs.”
“The brain changes at the structural and functional level,” says Steven Jillings, equilibrium and aerospace researcher at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. “The brain shifts upwards within the skull,” displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes. Some of the displaced cerebrospinal fluid goes into cavities within the brain, called ventricles, enlarging them. “The remaining fluids pool near the chest and heart,” explains Jillings. After 12 consecutive months in space, one astronaut had a ventricle that was 25 percent larger than before the mission.
Some changes reverse themselves while others persist for a while. An example of a longer-lasting problem is spaceflight-induced neuro-ocular syndrome, which results in near-sightedness and pressure inside the skull. A study of approximately 300 astronauts shows near-sightedness affects about 60 percent of astronauts after long missions on the International Space Station (ISS) and more than 25 percent after spaceflights of only a few weeks.
Another long-term change could be the decreased ability of cerebrospinal fluid to clear waste products from the brain, Seidler says. That’s because compressing the brain also compresses its waste-removing glymphatic pathways, resulting in inflammation, vulnerability to injuries and worsening its overall health.
The effects of long space missions were best demonstrated on astronaut twins Scott and Mark Kelly. This NASA Twins Study showed multiple, perhaps permanent, changes in Scott after his 340-day mission aboard the ISS, compared to Mark, who remained on Earth. The differences included declines in Scott’s speed, accuracy and cognitive abilities that persisted longer than six months after returning to Earth in March 2016.
By the end of 2020, Scott’s cognitive abilities improved, but structural and physiological changes to his eyes still remained, he said in a BBC interview.
“It seems clear that the upward shift of the brain and compression of the surrounding tissues with ventricular expansion might not be a good thing,” Seidler says. “But, at this point, the long-term consequences to brain health and human performance are not really known.”
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins conducts a session for the Neuromapping investigation.
Staying sharp in space
To investigate how prolonged space travel affects the brain, NASA launched a new initiative called the Complement of Integrated Protocols for Human Exploration Research (CIPHER). “CIPHER investigates how long-duration spaceflight affects both brain structure and function,” says neurobehavioral scientist Mathias Basner at the University of Pennsylvania, a principal investigator for several NASA studies. “Through it, we can find out how the brain adapts to the spaceflight environment and how certain brain regions (behave) differently after – relative to before – the mission.”
To do this, he says, “Astronauts will perform NASA’s cognition test battery before, during and after six- to 12-month missions, and will also perform the same test battery in an MRI scanner before and after the mission. We have to make sure we better understand the functional consequences of spaceflight on the human brain before we can send humans safely to the moon and, especially, to Mars.”
As we go deeper into space, astronauts cognitive and physical functions will be even more important. “A trip to Mars will take about one year…and will introduce long communication delays,” Seidler says. “If you are on that mission and have a problem, it may take eight to 10 minutes for your message to reach mission control, and another eight to 10 minutes for the response to get back to you.” In an emergency situation, that may be too late for the response to matter.
“On a mission to Mars, astronauts will be exposed to stressors for unprecedented amounts of time,” Basner says. To counter them, NASA is considering the continuous use of artificial gravity during the journey, and Seidler is studying whether artificial gravity can reduce the harmful effects of microgravity. Some scientists are looking at precision brain stimulation as a way to improve memory and reduce anxiety due to prolonged exposure to radiation in space.
To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Additionally, NASA is scrutinizing each aspect of the mission, including astronaut exercise, nutrition and intellectual engagement. “We need to give astronauts meaningful work. We need to stimulate their sensory, cognitive and other systems appropriately,” Basner says, especially given their extreme confinement and isolation. The scientific experiments performed on the ISS – like studying how microgravity affects the ability of tissue to regenerate is a good example.
“We need to keep them engaged socially, too,” he continues. The ISS crew, for example, regularly broadcasts from space and answers prerecorded questions from students on Earth, and can engage with social media in real time. And, despite tight quarters, NASA is ensuring the crew capsule and living quarters on the moon or Mars include private space, which is critical for good mental health.
Exploring deep space builds on a foundation that began when astronauts first left the planet. With each mission, scientists learn more about spaceflight effects on astronauts’ bodies. NASA will be using these lessons to succeed with its plans to build science stations on the moon and, eventually, Mars.
“Through internally and externally led research, investigations implemented in space and in spaceflight simulations on Earth, we are striving to reduce the likelihood and potential impacts of neurostructural changes in future, extended spaceflight,” summarizes NASA scientist Alexandra Whitmire. To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.