After Eugenia Kuyda’s closest friend died in a car accident, she decided to build a monument to him. She gathered text messages Roman Mazurenko had sent her and convinced his friends and family to do the same. Eventually, Kuyda, a software developer, gathered more than 8,000 lines of text that captured Mazurenko’s interests, thoughts, and personality. This was the raw material needed to train a neural network to speak like Mazurenko, to respond to messages as if he were writing the words himself.
“Roman bot” was published on Kuyda’s chatbot platform, Luka, in 2016. All a user needed to do was add @Roman, and they would be able to converse with the simulation, learning about Mazurenko’s life and career and, hopefully, glean something of his temperament. The rhythm of speech and the kinds of responses all carefully mimicked Kuyda’s friend. It was an experimental monument, a digital facsimile. Some called it a ghost. In a Facebook post, Kuyda described the experience of chatting to the bot as talking to “a shadow of a person.”
The technology wasn’t perfect, she noted, and a lot of the time @Roman would say something that didn’t make sense, but what her team had done “wasn’t possible just a year ago and in the very close future we will be able to do a lot more.”
If we talk into our phones, could we one day hear the voices of dead loved ones talking back to us?
In 2018, Google unveiled its Duplex system. Billed as an “A.I. system for accomplishing real-world tasks over the phone,” Duplex works by leveraging a recurrent neural network (RNN), along with the company’s automatic speech recognition technology, to convincingly call up businesses on behalf of users.
Most impressive—and for some, unsettling—is Google Duplex’s way with words. The company has laced its A.I. assistant with an array of phrases like “hmm” and “uh” that imitate the pauses and intonations of natural speech. This responsive speaker sounds more human than your average automated call. In fact, when Google first showcased the technology, there were cries that Duplex came across as duplicitous, misleading people into thinking they were talking to a human instead of a machine.
If Kuyda’s “Roman bot” managed a semblance of her deceased friend in text, how could this approach be advanced with the type of technology Google is pursuing with Duplex? The company has emphasized that the system will be transparent about its nature during calls, but there’s nevertheless a feeling that a crucial line has been reached in artificial speech. Could an A.I. system learn to appropriate the vocal rhythms, the tics of personality, for specific individuals? If we talk into our phones, could we one day hear the voices of dead loved ones talking back to us?