Richard Kyte: Can AI preserve the stories of our ancestors? – Buffalo News

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Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis. His forthcoming book, “Finding Your Third Place,” will be published by Fulcrum Books.

Of the many uses entrepreneurs are finding for artificial intelligence, one of the most interesting and troubling is the creation of virtual “people” who replicate someone who is deceased.

For $19.99 a month, You, Only Virtual uses AI to build what they call a “Versona,” a virtual representation based on someone’s communication records that can be “seamlessly introduced into existing text, phone and video communication channels — enabling an uninterrupted connection between loved ones–even after death.”

In an interview with ABC News, Justin Harrison, the founder of You, Only Virtual, said, “I’ve got a virtual mom talking to me ad nauseam about more rest, asking why I’m not hydrating.” When a question is raised about whether his mother would have wanted her likeness used in that way, Harrison dismisses it. “You absolutely don’t need consent from someone who’s dead,” he says.

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But is it unreasonable to have moral qualms over creating an interactive reproduction of a person who has died?

This is an example of a new kind of ethical question that hasn’t come up before (outside of science fiction) because the technology did not exist to make the question possible. But because of recent developments in AI, we now have to answer it. Does a person have a right to say how their personality is represented after death? Could someone, for example, stipulate in one’s will that any use of one’s images, videos and voice recordings by AI be restricted?

That is not the only ethical consideration generated by AI’s ability to produce virtual representations of the dead. Another question concerns the effects on the living. Is it wise to continue interacting with a deceased loved one as if they were still alive? That’s not an easy question to answer.

Even without the assistance of new technologies, we can dream about people we have lost, hold conversations with them in our imagination, or look at photographs or videos. But all those things seem fundamentally different from having a phone conversation with a departed family member.

StoryFile is a company that places ethical guidelines at the forefront while using images and recordings to create virtual interactive personalities based on real people. One of their projects is Tell Me, Inge, which allows one to ask questions of a virtual representation of Inge Auerbacher, a Holocaust survivor who was imprisoned as a child at Theresienstadt. The virtual Inge answers queries using the actual responses that Inge gave to interviewers during two days of intensive questioning. If someone asks about something outside the scope of those interviews, she politely says that she can’t answer that question.

This is the same technology used by the Shoah Foundation’s Dimensions in Testimony program, which uses prerecorded interviews to create holographic images of survivors. The interactive experience uses AI, but the words and images do not go beyond the original recordings of the person represented.

I don’t think there are any ethical concerns with using advanced technologies in this way to preserve the testimony of witnesses to significant historical events, and to do so in ways that make education about those events more interesting, engaging and relevant. But we still have to keep in mind that the only way to keep the stories of the past alive is to pass on the tradition of storytelling.

Some of my fondest memories of growing up are from days when I would ride my bicycle out of town to visit my grandparents. Grandma Mae would put a pot of coffee on the stove and get out some rhubarb cake or peach pie she had just made. Grandpa Emmett would pull up a chair at the kitchen table, and we would all sit down for a long afternoon of storytelling.

They had all kinds of stories, and I never knew how many of them were true. Emmett told stories about his uncle, one of North Dakota’s first game wardens and a friend of Annie Oakley. He told about working on the dockyards in California and helping build the Alaska Highway. Mae’s stories were less adventurous and more believable: skating to school across a frozen lake, picking bushels of chokecherries to make a year’s worth of jelly, and setting food out by the back door for hobos who were passing through during the Depression. I remember thinking at the time that I should bring a tape recorder along with me to capture those stories. Of course, I never did.

It was not just the stories themselves that were valuable, however. Even more significant was the time spent together in shared imagination, along with the sense that they were entrusting me with something precious. My grandparents were introducing me to a tradition of storytelling that had been shared with them by their parents and grandparents when they were young. Without realizing it at the time, I was receiving a lesson in stewardship.

We are connected to one another through the stories we share. Stories give shape to our lives. They provide context for our experiences, transforming them from a series of “one damn thing after another” to a journey, moving from a beginning to an end. Stories are the means by which our lives acquire a shared meaning.

Can AI help us preserve shared meanings? Perhaps it can. But only if it is used alongside the everyday practices of loving attention and hospitality that cultures have used for generations to draw one another deeper into the shared spaces where a common identity is formed.

To keep the stories alive in the hearts of the next generation, we need to encourage our children to take their turn as storytellers. AI won’t be able to do that. It takes real people to bring others into the circle of love.

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