The tech company Somnium Space essentially wants to recreate the episode of Black Mirror “Be Right Back”. For context, Be Right Back is the episode where a woman’s husband dies and she decides to resurrect a human robot whose personality and likeness is created using the online presence of her husband. The only difference here is everything is in VR so there is no robot.
The mastermind (and I do not mean that sarcastically) behind this company is Artur Sychov. Sychov developed this idea not after binge watching a Netflix series but tragically through the death of his father who passed away from cancer. He subsequently began to think about all the children who would not be able to spend time with their grandparents and decided to act, and thus spawned Somnium Space’s digital immortality project.
So how does this AI work and let’s compare it to the Black Mirror Episode? In Be Right Back, data was taken from the online presence of the husband to build the AI. Essentially, they used his social media posts to have the AI predict what his actions and responses would have been in specific scenarios. This led to a scene, that demonstrated the flaws of this method perfectly. There was a picture of the husband when his family went to a safari after his brother’s death. He hated the picture because it signified a dark, depressing, and as he put it “not fun” day. The husband then went on to tweet the photo and claimed it was funny online. Because of the tweet, this resulted in the AI believing the husband thought the picture was funny rather than what it actually symbolized.
Somnium Space is doing things quite differently. They are instead using a proactive approach to this AI. Instead of them taking data from your social media post death, you instead go to them and voluntarily give them data about you.
To collect this data, they first equip you with a Teslasuit. This suit can provide wearers with realistic sensations when in the VR space, track and store your movements over time, and simulate weather conditions for a variety of training cases. Somnium Space uses the Telsasuit to analyze your movements to provide the AI with information about the way you walk, gestures you make, and small mannerisms. Not only that, but it can also track your cardio and stress levels through its many sensors.
They then need to collect your voice data. For the AI to simulate your speech, you will have many conversations with Somnium Space so that the AI can learn your accent, speech patterns, and I’m assuming some history as well.
After having your speech, movements, and physiology documented and analyzed, it’s time for your avatar to come to life digitally. Somnium’s CEO said “You will meet the person. And you would maybe for the first 10 minutes while talking to that person, you would not know that it’s actually AI. That’s the goal.”
To be honest, I think that this is all the AI can offer. A ten-minute moment of bliss in which you believe you are speaking to a dead relative, until you are struck with the hard reality that you are just talking to a computer. I say this because even with all the hard work, admittedly cool technology, and clean and accurate data, nothing could simulate the billions of seconds and the countless memories a person has lived through. All the small but joyful events you’ve shared with your friends and family over your lifetime would never be able to be captured through the data collection process.
Once you get past the awe of seeing a dead relative you really admired, you’ll realize most questions you can ask that are not surface level will fall short of your expectations. If you knew the person before they passed, it’d be even more disappointing. You would just reopen wounds you have previously taken the time to heal. This won’t provide any closure in that regard.
With that being said, I do think this technology would be really cool and exceptionally useful when it comes to speaking to public figures after they have passed. Imagine if you were able to speak to Martin Luther King Jr. and have him walk you through his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” essay, or even speak to Steve Jobs a hundred years from now and listen to how he innovated the cell phone industry. Yes, we have videos, but nothing would compare to a VR session with these beyond influential people.
So, in all I don’t think this technology would have quite the impact Sychov wants, but it would no doubt be an innovative force for good and I think he and Somnium Space should pursue it. And for anyone trying to take this and apply it to a real-world robot… stop, just don’t do it.