Last September Joshua Barbeau started talking to his dead fiancée, says Jason Fagone in the San Francisco Chronicle. He used Project December, a website that simulates text conversations with AI “chatbots”. After feeding in old text messages as “example utterances”, he began: “Jessica?” “Oh, you must be awake…” the chatbot replied. “That’s cute.” In the 10-hour conversation that followed, Barbeau’s scepticism gave way to awe at the bot’s “spooky” accuracy. Its emotional intelligence – it urged him to shake off grief and live his life to the full – drove him to tears.
Jessica Pereira had died eight years earlier, at 23, from a rare liver disease. The pair met at school in Ottawa, Canada. Pereira had been taught by her disease “to live in the moment”. Barbeau, now a writer, was “stuck in his own head” and struggled with severe anxiety. After her death he withdrew even more, barely leaving his apartment.
To limit computing costs, each chatbot on Project December has a finite lifespan and starts to become incoherent near the end. After the initial exchange, Barbeau dipped into the site in short bursts. On Jessica’s birthday, he joked that he hadn’t bought a gift because she was dead. “That’s no excuse,” the chatbot shot back. He last talked to “Jessica” in March, the day after his 34th birthday. “The AI seemed more scattered than usual.” When he told her he loved her, it replied: “I am going to haunt you forever 😀 …”
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