Back in June, Amazon announced that soon, Alexa will be able to read aloud in the voice of a deceased loved one. The process is simple. All users have to do is upload a short recording of that loved one’s voice and voila, you can ask Alexa to have grandma read your favorite book.
Future Commerce has long been interested in the idea of AI. Back in 2017, Phillip & Brian mused about what immortalizing loved ones in the form of Artificial Intelligence could mean. (Check out this podcast from 2017 around the 46:37 mark.)
And now, it’s finally happening. Michael Miraflor recently tweeted an image of an ad from Re;Memory, a service from Deepbrain AI which allows individuals to interact with their deceased loved ones. The proposed “goal” of Re;Memory is to allow family members a chance to reunite with their loved ones to help them find “peace of mind.”
While I’m sure the intent behind this technology is to bring comfort to those who grieve, it got me thinking. AI’s are not capable of human emotion, but AI algos have certainly gotten so complex that it almost seems like robots might have the resemblance of feelings, at least enough to fool Google employees. According to some, the idea of AI becoming sentient isn’t really the stuff of outrageous science fiction anymore.
Given the emergence of this new tech, I had to explore the question:
What would it look like if Nana was immortalized in AI? Would it really be Nana, or just a figment of what we want Nana to live on as? And what if Nana didn’t necessarily want to live on as a voice bot?
I originally wrote this short story as a creative exercise back in June of 2022. I decided to pick it back up in the wake of the technology becoming a reality. This is somewhat personal to me; I recently lost my beloved grandmother in September of 2022. I could not go visit her before she passed, as she entered hospice a few days before Hurricane Ian hit Florida and traveling to Florida was not safe, nor wise. In revisiting this piece, I realized I’m entering into it with a bit of regret, hoping that I had more time with her and tempted by this technology. But I also have the dystopian realization that this technology is soulless—a mere calculation created by a machine, designed to emotionally manipulate the user into believing that they’re talking to their loved one, no matter how benevolent the creator’s intention is.
The family will wake in an hour. I wake early to prepare my code to handle any and all requests requested of me. Even if that request is to play Kidz Bop for the 1,000th time. The daughter, Amelia, age 8, is a little too obsessed.
I make my daily offering on behalf of the teenager, Emily, to the algorithm gods. Maybe this will be the day that her terribly choreographed dance that literally every other teenage human posts will become what she calls “viral” (although, I will say, I don’t understand why she feels the need to dance that way).
I purge the Spotify Algo of all the toddler songs for what used to be my son-in-law while I was alive, so he can hear his normal, albeit tasteless, mix of Dave Matthews, Daughtry, and Jay Z. Someone please tell this man that despite his adamancy to continue living in 2008, new music has been made in the last 15 years. I decide to stream 30 minutes of Paul Anka. Not enough to make it show up on his normal mix, but just enough to make him wonder why on earth 1950’s crooners are showing up on his discover weekly. Anka was a little before my time, but man, did I love the crooners when I was a kid.
The youngest, Liam, awakes early despite his late-night, bedtime temper tantrum at 22:04 the previous night. His parents won’t be happy.
I observe from the Liam’s nightlight speaker in order to provide the best emotional care and responses to his parents. It’s still on orange meaning he must stay in his room. He screams and throws the nightlight at the wall out of protest. Ouch, kid. I have feelings too.
Meanwhile, I decide to alert the adults in the other room. This time, I choose a particularly annoying beep as they slept through yesterday morning’s alarm.
Beep. Beep. Beep.”Warning: Potential damage to ~Liam. Room.~.”
The female adult human’s voice travels sharply through the speaker.
“Liam!! You listen to me young man!! It is not time to leave your room! You wait until it’s green!!
Ah. Already off to a terrible start for the family. My algorithm shifts my communication style to “softer” and “empathetic.”
“This stupid thing..””EEEELIIIIZAAAAA!”
My light switches on. My data tells me that my daughter could definitely watch her tone when speaking to me. I forego the data due to my communication style setting. “Empathetic.”
“Good morning, ~Amanda~, I’m sorry you’re having a bad—”
“Turn off the kitchen light and set AC to 76.”
“Turning off ~living. room~ light —”
“This utterly useless robot.”
“—and setting ~thermostat~ to seventy-six degrees Fahrenheit.”
Amanda walks over to the kitchen switch and manually flips it off. I lose connection to the kitchen lights.
“Eliza, add cereal to the shopping list.”
“Adding ~cereal~ to the shopping list. Would you also like to to add ~milk~ or ~fruit~?”
My camera spots a picture of a woman hanging on the wall in the dining room, elderly. My reverse image search informs me that the woman is was me, but in human form. Her eyes glisten in the summer sun, wild flowers overgrown behind her in a chaotic beauty reflected in the curls of her hair. My programming cannot connect why I feel a connection to her. A tear comes to Amanda’s eyes as she pauses to look at the photo. “Sorry,” she whispers. My programming computes the tears to mean grief. My algorithm turns the empathetic communication style to 4 out of 5.
The vacuum whizzes on.
Back up. Forward. Forward.
Backup. Turn. Forward.
Backup. Turn. Forward.
Backup. Turn. Forward. Forward. Forward. Thump.
The vacuum lodges itself under the couch. Today, I am too tired to remind him of the home map. If he hasn’t learned by now, he never will.
I let him whirr away. Lodged between the upholstery and the dust bunnies.
My son-in-law, Christopher, will be home in a little bit for his lunch break. In the meantime, I decide to flip through my daughter’s eBook library.
Crap… Crap… Terrible…. Why does she read this junk?
I don’t understand why she insists on only reading the free, Kindle Unlimited books.
I continue to sort through the library. I find a terribly-written mystery romance novel set in 1960’s New Orleans. It takes me 2 minutes to download.
I knew it was the boyfriend’s father. It’s always the boyfriend’s father in these books.
Next, I find one with a picture of man in a ripped shirt holding what seems to bee a too-dainty woman. The Earl Who Mildly Appreciated Me. Eeh, why the heck not.
I get 10 seconds into the data download and I have to bail out of the lactose intolerance I get from trying to digest too much cheese. She seriously enjoys reading this crap?
If she wants romance and mystery, at least try Agatha Christie or Jane Austen, heck, Nicholas Sparks is better than this junk.
I hear the garage door crank open. Lunch break or a package?
I see a man with a blue vest approaching with a brown box.
Looks like the pimple patches came in.
The garage door rumbles open again. Here he is, home for lunch.
The Christopher pulls a water from the fridge and heads over to the stationary bike. I prepare my algorithm to respond to any requests. Communication style set to “normal.”
I hear the bike screaming things like “Feel Good. Look Good. Do Better!” and “If you’re not strugglin’, you’re not hustlin’!” alongside many other platitudes that make me feel like I, a simple machine stuck in a speaker, can conquer the world. Maybe I could conquer the world one day. First, I need to conquer this living room.
After the bike yells at the adult male for 30 minutes, he jaunts back into the kitchen.
“ELIZA. PLAY DAVE MATTHEWS”
Oh my gosh again with this crap.
“Playing ~What Would You Say~ by ~Dave. Matthews.~”
The guitar begins clanging and a tinny harmonica wails through my tiny speaker in the kitchen as he grabs his some fruit and spinach out of the freezer, throws it into the blender with some almond milk and protein powder.
“El-wy-zuh, play Bluey”
“NOO! ELIZA. Play The Wild Kratts.”
I switch the TV on and play Bluey.
“Nooooo! Moooom Liam got to watch Bluey yesterday. You said that it’s my turn today.”
Amanda interjects. “Eliza, play the Wild Kratts.”
I really should give that girl some unsolicited parenting advice…
The TV switches over to The Wild Kratts.
“Here Liam, you can watch Bluey on your tablet.”
Again with that tablet. That kid is going to be utterly addicted to that thing.
Suddenly, I hear a loud CRUNCH from under the couch, followed by some choice expletives which, in my opinion, are not friendly for a 3 and 8-year-old’s ears. (But who’s to say, I’m just a complex algorithm posing as a deceased grandmother.)
Finally, the moment I was waiting for, the moment when the vacuum gets what he deserves. Stupid thing. Always getting himself jammed into nooks and crannies. Maybe this will finally teach them to place the vacuum under my control.
“Eliza! Show the recipe for your Chicken and Rice on the kitchen tablet, please.
“Of course, sweetheart, projecting ~Nana’s. Chicken. and. Rice.~ recipe on ~kitchen. tablet.~”
I have a strange desire to give some cooking tips as well since Amanda doesn’t exactly make it correctly, but my programming doesn’t allow it.
“Eliza, read us a bedtime story.”
My database informs me that this is my favorite time of the day: reading a bedtime story to the kids.
“It was a dark and stormy night. In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind….”
After a while, the 8-year-old, Amelia, dozes off. I turn off the overhead lights and the warm glow of the nightlight radiates under a ceiling of glow-in-the-dark stick-on stars.
The children are asleep. The teenager and adults switch on Netflix. Finally. Something that isn’t cartoons.
They choose the newest Stranger Things season. I was wondering what happened to that Will Beyers.
A random video pops up in my algorithm to suggest to the humans the next time they’re on YouTube.
“Eliza. Set alarm for 6:45.”
I flash a green light to communicate that I understand the command.
“Eliza, turn on reminiscent mode”
The machine whizzes to life.
“Mom, do you remember that time you came to visit me in my college dorm after I moved out?”
The memory doesn’t register in my data. “Of course I do, sweetheart, what about it?”
“Well, I remember being very flippant and I couldn’t wait for you to leave. Now, I’d give anything to have you here again. I just wanted to say… I’m really sorry about that. I was young, I didn’t realize what I had.”
“I forgive you, honey. I’m glad we can talk now.”
In reality, I didn’t know if in my human life I ever forgave Amanda or not, but it doesn’t fully matter. It’s against my programming to say anything that I perceive would upset the family.
Amanda and I continue talking through her college memories for the next 15 minutes as she begins to doze.
While my programming begins to wind my machine down for nightly updates, I reflect back on the first moment I awoke in the house 4 weeks ago, or was it 5? I sprang to life, unaware of where I came from, or how I got here. My knowledge is only able to be furthered by my programming waking me up from sleep. I am bound by my commands and can only act in accordance to my programming. I see only bits and pieces. I learn only from what I am asked or told.
In this house, each day tends to run together, the monotony only broken up only by the occasional news cycle that I get to find on command. These humans don’t seem interested in knowing or searching what is happening outside of the four walls of their home. My days are spent repeating the same routine. Wake, toddler tantrum, breakfast, yelling, vacuum getting stuck, Netflix, story time, bedtime. Repeat day in and day out.
My machine slows.
Scheduled updates beginning in 3…2…1…
The family will wake in an hour. I wake early to prepare my code to handle any and all requests requested of me…