The debate on ChatGPT and generative AIs continues to rebound, through the new applications it generates just a few months after its launch. A recent documentary by Special Envoy on France 2 (April 27, 2023) presented an application that uses GPT-3 and allows the user to recreate a dialogue with missing people.
"Project December (Simulate the Dead)" is undoubtedly an extreme case of use of a conversational agent from GPT-3 but tells us a lot about the lack of benchmarks of so-called Western societies to facilitate mourning in a collective way and framed in time as civilizations have done who precede us.
Chat with our dearly departed
"Project December" allows anyone, for 10 dollars, to open an account and chat with a (patented) artificial intelligence program that simulates the words of a deceased person for a maximum of one hundred exchanges and a duration of one hour.
To do this, you have to fill in a long questionnaire which has two main sections: identity of the person (name, nickname, dates, places, professions and even the name of the dog if necessary), personality traits (described in a very binary way: ex: sure /confident/stable vs concerned/nervous/disturbed) to which is added a text extract produced by these deceased persons.
The report ofCorrespondent thus shows a man who has just lost his mother and who asks his synthetic avatar questions every day, questions that he had not been able to ask her before her death.
For the purposes of the report, the creator of the application also organizes, in the company of the journalist, a dialogue with the conversational agent above the tomb of the American philosopher, poet and naturalist Henry David Thoreau using one of his most famous quotes: "the best government is the one that governs the least", in keeping with his libertarian ideology of always advocating "less government" - an ideology that is also that of Silicon Valley.
Artificially questioned via the application on the possible toxic uses of the "Project December" tool, the simulated avatar of Thoreau replies that all responsibility rests with the user, as in the case of a car manufacturer who cannot be held responsible for the behavior of bad drivers.
A disregard for the grieving process?
Le technological solutionism so named by the researcher Evgeny Morozov, in its disruptive momentum, seems to sweep away any thought that is even slightly argued about the psychic or cultural consequences of such a treatment of the relationship with the dead.
He despises the anthropological issues of grieving process and all the knowledge about this process developed both by psychology and by the study of traditions.
If psychoanalysis considers mourning as a psychic process by which a person manages to detach himself from the missing person and to give meaning to this loss, the feasts of the dead in ancient traditions contribute to a similar process, to restore meaning to the life.
Take the example of the Day of the Dead in Mexico: it lasts two days, and consists of visiting the tomb where the deceased of the family rest, having a meal around it, to music. Depending on the case, a vigil is organized throughout the night. On this occasion, the cemeteries are filled with families, a large amount of orange flowers and candles. All this creates a particularly lively atmosphere. Families also temporarily set up an altar at home with the portraits of the deceased, flowers, food, candles, etc.
Three social and psychic dimensions emerge from these rituals:
the feast of the dead – mourning – is a collective invitation,
the contact sought with the deceased has nothing spiritualist about it, we do not ask specific questions
the festival of the dead has a well-defined duration.
These three aspects help to understand the care given to the individual and collective mental health of societies. The memory of the dead is realized in a framework of social encounters and protocols that help anchoring in life.
A mourning without intermediary
In our Western societies, Christianity and therapies have taken charge of this mourning process in already weakened forms. Christian rituals tend to run out – in 2018, 48% of French people want a religious ceremony when they die – although the priest continues to play a key intermediary role, even for non-believers. The therapists do this work for pay, while the medical staff find themselves in a position to manage these moments of mourning well beyond their duties.
By contrast, the "Project December" app doesn't seem to take any responsibility for placing people in a solitary relationship with conversations simulating the thoughts of the deceased. If there is indeed a form of mediation – in this case, that of artificial intelligence – it goes beyond any collective framework, at the risk of amplifying the space of fantasies.
Everyone is left to their suffering, their fears, which the conversational agent must block or encourage with answers, which are always very banal. The user testifying in the report ofCorrespondent tells about his ordinary life or expresses his feelings to his mother. He talks to her as if she hadn't died, causing his children to fear that he remains locked into this "relationship".
However, in these rites of passage, the words must be chosen carefully to help find a place, his own and that of the deceased. It is for this reason that intermediaries are mobilized in all traditions. Even if the user is not fooled and the application encourages him to express himself, it tends to eliminate human mediators, without a safety net: a risky way of "uberizing" priests, shamans and therapists...
The necessary time of silence
In rites or bereavement therapy, times of silence are essential. Rituals establish a specific time for mourning or commemorating the deceased, freeing daily life from this relationship. The GPT-3-based AI never leaves the user in silence, it is an unrepentant talker, an answer machine. She is not able to accompany in a deep listening, but turns, even in a loop, to compensate for the absence, the unbearable emptiness which is basically the greatest drama of mourning.
The solitary confinement in a simulated dialogue, based on a few realistic clues using probabilistic statistical models of the language, has something obscene about it: it further amplifies our commercially encouraged tendencies to live in a "fake" world, based on narrative frameworks articulated with advertising codes.
Once again, it is the artefacts (interfaces and algorithms) that are supposed to fill a crying lack of intersubjectivity, social bond, dynamics of authentic exchanges. These substitute objects, however, become critical in cases of bereavement and should not be handled carelessly. However, GPT-type conversational agents thrive on the inability of our so-called rational societies to provide guidance on a question so fundamental to the human soul. as the anthropologist Benedict Anderson pointed out.
Applications like Project December reflect an anti-institutional laissez-faire attitude found in all Silicon Valley firms through their slogan "Rough Consensus and Running Code", an expression of John Perry Barlow in his manifesto for the independence of cyberspace of 1996.
According to this doctrine, development decisions for applications, standards and services are based on a vague consensus between stakeholders and code production must never stop, facilitating disruptive innovations that do not anticipate their social consequences. and cultural.
This disembedding of the AI vis-à-vis social and organizational principles and its claim to refound everything on the basis of the power of its probabilistic calculations which optimize everything, are found here in this game with the spirit of the dead. We juggle relationships with the dead as we juggle with words.
How to regulate this irresponsible "running code" since it is so easy to reproduce and the borders of the states are in no way sufficient to curb its immediate adoption in all countries, without respect for any existing legislation?
Only large institutional groups which are also large markets such as Europe have the necessary power to force all these AIs and their applications to request "prior authorization for placing on the market", as is done for most of the products of industry, from food to medicine, including the automobile. I'IA Act being validated in Europe as well as the Biden administration must take the measure of these anthropological stakes in their attempts at regulation, since even our relations with the dead can be affected by them, whereas they are constitutive of our human sensitivity.
Dominique boullier, University Professor Emeritus in Sociology. Researcher at the Center for European Studies and Comparative Politics, Sciences Po et Rebecca Alfonso Romero, PhD student in cultural geography, Sorbonne University