How often do you wish you could speak to someone who has died? How many questions would you love to ask your departed loved ones? Thanks to new technology, the opportunity to do so is not far offby Yorick Wilks / October 20, 2010 / Leave a comment
How often do you wish you could speak to someone who has died? How many questions would you love to ask your departed loved ones? Thanks to new technology, the opportunity to do so is not far off.
Huge chunks of our lives are, of course, already recorded on the web—not only in the emails and the documents we write, but in our photographs and videos, which we share on sites like Facebook, Flickr and YouTube. Companies such as Microsoft, Google and Vodafone offer free storage space in return for our life data; accessing our memories, tastes and records. But what happens to all this when we die?
A European Commission-funded project called Companions, which I ran for its first two years and is now coming to an end, created a trial computer programme called “Senior Companion”: a conversational agent designed to interact with a person for a long period, learning their tastes and habits. For the moment, this would be best suited to elderly people, living alone and wanting company, who might need to be reminded when to take pills and so on. It could also, however, help build up a narrative picture of a person’s life for posterity.
At present, only those with talent, resources and leisure tend to write autobiographies. But, if the Companions project or its successors work, anyone could assemble some form of autobiography for their children. Elderly people often possess a lot of old photographs; soon these will be digital images. The Senior Companion starts by asking its owner who is in each picture, where it was taken and what its importance is. In this way, the programme can store a wealth of memories after the owner has departed.
This may seem a futuristic project, but the Japanese have already shown there is a market for surprisingly primitive devices of this sort if they can achieve an acceptable level of naturalness of voice and manner. The technical basis of Companion programmes is a research area called “machine learning”: the ability of a computer to learn, within limits, things it did not know before. A successful example of this is voice recognition technology: the iPad now comes with software that gives close to full transcription of voice to text.
The same underlying process would allow a Companion to imitate its owner’s voice. Stephen Hawking’s insistence on keeping his 20 year-old electronic voice has masked the…