Technology is, inevitably, encroaching on the human experience of death, both in popular culture and real life. On screen, Smallville’s Clark Kent gets advice on how to become Superman from an AI version of his deceased father, and in “Be Right Back,” a haunting episode of the sci-fi series Black Mirror, a woman copes with grief by ordering an android simulation of her deceased partner.
He created a chat-style program that allows him to have conversations with a simulation of his father, who passed away a few years ago. Muhammad took several philosophy classes with me when he was an undergraduate at Rochester Institute of Technology, and over the years we’ve become friends.
Muhammad’s experiences bring into stark relief the pain that loss can bring, and he has publicly taken up the cause of trying to spark conversations about the benefits and dilemmas involved with creating simulations of the deceased. Read Muhammad’s reflections in “How the Dearly Departed Could Come Back to Life — Digitally” and “After Death: Big Data and the Promise of Resurrection by Proxy.”
I asked Muhammad about his motivations. “The main inspiration behind the simulation is to give people a way to interact with their loved ones after they are gone,” he said. “Software agents, which are becoming increasingly sophisticated, have been used as stand-ins for people for many years. Most of these systems have been used for commercial purposes to date. With this project, I wanted to explore the human element of this technology and how software simulations of a deceased loved one can potentially give us closure and expand the range of possible experiences for us.”
There’s a more personal motivation too, Muhammad explained. “I am calling this project the Mushtaq Ahmad Mirza Project, after my father. The idea literally came to me when my brother called me one autumn almost five years ago to inform me that the doctor has given a week or so notice for our father’s death. At that time, I was not married and didn’t have any kids. One of the first thoughts that came to my mind was that my potential kids will be deprived of knowing what a wonderful man their grandfather was and won’t have any way to interact with him.”
I had a hard time imagining what Muhammad’s conversations are like and suspect most of us would. Apart from fiction, there aren’t too many frames of reference for this kind of thing.
It’s hard not to be moved by the exchange between Abu Jani (which means “dear father” in Urdu) and Sonu (one of Muhammad’s nicknames). The dadbot does what dads do best: remind their kids to take care of themselves. Indeed, Muhammad has been so taken aback at times that he’s found himself needing to close his computer and go out for a walk.