How to Skype with Your Great-Great-Great Grandfather

Genghis KhanOkay, this is creepy. Creative, but creepy.

Springwise alerted me to a startup that will let people talk with their dead relatives and loved ones.

This isn’t some sort of magic, nor is it quite what it seems. compiles information about the recently deceased–social media, text messages, e-mails, etc–to recreate a person’s personality after they’re gone, thus enabling you to “chat” with the person.

As Springwise put it, “’s essential aim is to lessen the impact of death and ensure that people are remembered after they die — something everyone hopes for.”

I admire the intention and the ingenuity. The implications could be fascinating–imagine what you could learn about someone! Of course, there are ethical implications: Does the person, while alive, have to authorize it? After all, you have digging through your past and making it accessible to others. I know I’ve sent some things in e-mails that I hope are never read again.

Also, let’s take it a step further: Why limit to the dead? Could people use it on the living? You could use it to help you get over a bad breakup or to tell off the digital version of your boss after a hard day at work. You could reconnect with old friends who you’re curious about but don’t really want to talk to in real life. You could chat with celebrities, historical figures, or fictional characters. I’d love to have a chat with Genghis Khan, especially if he appeared to be just as interested in chatting as I am.

Imagine getting an instant message from Genghis Khan: “Hey, going on a midnight raid. You in?”

You: “To Taco Bell?”

Khan: “We will pillage their tacos and destroy their bells!”

You: “Alright, dude, simmer down. Chicken or beef?”

Khan: “Chicken.”

On a scale from 1-10, how creepy do you think this concept is? If you could talk to a fully functional AI of anyone ever, who would it be?

9 thoughts on “How to Skype with Your Great-Great-Great Grandfather”

  1. Have you ever seen the English show Black Mirror? There is a whole creepy hour of science fiction devoted to this topic. I do not want to spoil it incase you would like to watch it. Creepy…

    • Kim: The Springwise article actually mentioned Black Mirror! I’m intrigued, although I typically don’t like creepy/scary shows or movies. Is it more sci fi or horror?

      • It’s definitely more sci fi. It’s an interesting view on how technically can change within the next 5 to 10 years and completely change how we live our lives. This show makes you think about the technology we use every day and how it can affect our every day lives and relationships with each other. Some examples of Black Mirror: everyone wears a recording chip behind their ear that they can hook up to any tv at any time so everyone can take a look at their day, week, month, moment….relationship. or your example of being able to speak with a loved one after they have passed though a compilation of social media, though, Black Mirror takes it one step further and…well, I’m not going to spoil that part. 🙂
        So, to answer your question, not horror. HA! Enjoy

  2. I get Springwise too and think it’s 100% creepy. I like your point about thinking beyond the dead, but I am wary of how technology is sometimes making us less competent at communicating and dealing with things, as we instead look to a new invention to get around coping. I would hate to delay or stretch out the grief process for people, or have them avoid talking to a Hospice worker or friend or family member because they are online in a virtual reality talking to their dead loved one, who may or may not be accurately represented and may or may not be helping. Is grief not the time that can bring the living closer together by dealing with it in community? (Or you can write a letter or pray or talk to them, sure.)

    I would imagine there’s some very bizarre liability issues here, right? What might this dead person say to a grief-stricken loved one that could scar them for life or cause emotional damage? (People are just so happy to sue others, it makes me sad but it’s a reality.) This is absolutely fascinating but I tend to lean toward wanting humans to get better at coping, not inventing a crutch.

    Another example – some computer science grad students were telling me (during my undergrad in the communications school) about a digital picture frame they invented where you place one in an elderly home and one in your home (say you are their child). If the frame in your home’s graphic, (let’s say butterflies) are brightly colored and large, Grandma is moving around great, measured from sensors around the house. If the butterflies are small and gray, she maybe has been in bed for a few days. Now is this a great technology that can allow elderly folks to stay independent longer than otherwise possible? Sure! Is it smart? Sure! Want to know how they pitched it to me? “So you see, now you only have to call or visit your Grandma when she’s really sick!” To which I am horrified and lecturing, “YOU GO CALL YOUR GRANDMA RIGHT NOW!” None of the technology is bad, per se, but I do think it often is positioned as a substitute for competent interpersonal skills, for evolving communication skills, for emotional capacities that should be developed, not circumvented. (The other example was color-coding fonts on IM for moods, so sarcasm could be detected. “It saved us from so many fights!” said one engaged couple. “Bigger problems my friends!” said my undergrad judgey self.)

    • Emma: That’s a great point about healthy ways of dealing with grief and addressing the liability issues. That’s why I wondered if the person has to authorize while they’re still alive.

      Ha ha…do some people think they should only call their grandparents when they’re sick?! Sigh…

  3. I don’t have time to write a short note, so this will be a long one.

    From the perspective of how this product will interface with people, I think it’s an entirely new thing, and on that basis alone I think it will fail. I look at all the loved ones I’ve had to bury in the past 10 years and I have to say that part of being able to grieve is being able to accept that I won’t have a conversation with them again. I have kept a few recordings on our answering machine (my grandfather calling us back when we called to tell him we’d have our first baby, my Nana leaving a touching message is her usual and lovely Southern drawl) and some videos that remain precious to me, but I know these are moments in time. The most important part of a conversation, to me at least, is the re-affirmation of the relationship. This is why we tell the same stories over and over, they mark a solidifying part of who we are and how we bond. I don’t think I can do that with a construct of my grandfather, or my best friend from high school (who died 11 years ago). It would be disturbing for a college friend who was killed in Afghanistan. Would his construct perpetually be there, awaiting a return home from his tour of duty? And for others it would just be too strange. A friend of mine was murdered last year by her husband. How much am I going to have to creep around while talking with her construct about him? And what if I come across HIS construct?

    Also, the state of technology is BARELY to the point of being able to understand and predict the behavior of currently-living individuals who are making basic decisions (which laundry detergent to buy, what types of products to market to them, likely Republican voters, etc). Trying to emulate personality traits, that’s a leap. Maybe if they’re able to record the activities and thoughts of living individuals, data-mine them, and come back with something that might work in limited situations (think about “I, Robot” and the holographic interview Will Smith’s character was conducting at the start of the film). But it won’t be the personalities. The single biggest problem with data, and this is going back for two and a half centuries of data science, lies in taking what we have observed and applying it to what we can’t observe. The challenger blew up partly because we never tested the O-ring (which controls the exhaust of fuel) at the temperature on the day of launch – we assumed a linear decrease in tensile strength but found that volume diminishes to the point that the ring was no longer safe (and in fact it vaporized, leading to the explosion). I see, over and over again, examples of marketing research where the results from a given price range lead someone to speculate “we had 60% market share at $4/unit, 40% market share at $6/unit, let’s boost it to $12/unit and get 20% market share but save on manufacturing and distribution” but they price themselves entirely out of market.

    This also reminds me of something out of a William Gibson novel. In Neuromancer, the proponent consults with a construct that is the digitized consciousness of a long-dead hacker. In Mona Lisa Overdrive, one of the characters has to argue with another construct in order to get in the door (a construct who “remembers” a slight she had done to wrong him). This also isn’t too far off, in concept, from Greg Bear’s “Eon”, in which all personalities are digitized after physical death and maintained as sort of an archive from which to learn, but the interfacing is more limited with the living (with the exception of Ser Olmy, who was found useful enough to merit multiple reincarnations of his personality into a cyberorganic device).

    I’m gonna call my wife’s grandparents now. They’re the only ones I have left.

  4. One more short thought – why, of ALL the people you could talk to, would you want to chat with Genghis Khan? If you do, make sure you ask about his son. He was reportedly (by Marco Polo’s writings) so fond of the lad that it was the only time he smiled.

    • Wow, that’s pretty cool. 5 years seems ambitious, but you never know…my digital twin might even be writing this response right now.


Leave a Reply

Discover more from

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading