10/28/20 · Health

Chatbots for coping with grief up for debate

A UOC project explores the bioethics of digital tools created to help people come to terms with the loss of a loved one

Bot prototypes have already been developed that emulate the conversations that a deceased person would have had in life in order to help friends and family work through their grief
Photo: Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels

Photo: Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels

If you had the opportunity to speak to the 'virtual twin' of someone from beyond the grave, would you take it? What if it was a loved one that had passed away? Would you be open to exchanging a few final messages with them? It may sound like science fiction but work on the development of tools such as these is already under way. These programs gather data from an individual's digital footprint and use it to simulate conversations containing the words and expressions that would typically have been used by that person. The psychological, social and cultural impact these tools may have is, however, still unclear and, as such, the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) and the University of Aalborg (Denmark) are about to launch a study to open up the subject for debate.

The research, funded with a grant from the Víctor Grífols i Lucas Foundation, will be centred on the bioethical discussion surrounding these technological projects that touch upon issues such as digital legacy and mourning. "More and more applications are being created to try to support those affected by the death of a loved one, and as such it is essential that we reflect on the potential impact of these tools and listen to the various points of view of the parties involved, from programmers to users," explained the project's chief researcher, together with Ignacio Brescó, and adjunct professor of the UOC's Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences, Belén Jiménez Alonso.

Can bots help with bereavement?

A number of initiatives are already working to develop bots to help people cope with the death of a loved one. Some of the most innovative projects even aim to recreate the interactions of the deceased individual in order to give their friends and family a chance to say goodbye. These use artificial intelligence algorithms to gather the information from a person's internet activity, from social media posts to photos, videos, emails and text messages. From there, a neural network processes the information and learns to 'mimic' the behaviour of the deceased to simulate a realistic conversation with that person.

This is the same idea conveyed by the iconic Black Mirror episode, "Be Right Back", in which the protagonist tries to get over the sudden loss of her partner by creating a bot which enables her to communicate with him again. This dystopian story does indeed raise some of the key questions included in this study. For example, is it ethical to simulate a conversation with someone who has died? Are these interactions positive for the bereaved? Should there be some kind of intermediary in these kinds of relationships? And can these tools provide us with a different way of approaching something as painful as the end of life? Many of these questions will be posed by the project's researchers during this year's European Researchers' Night.

A final farewell

It is a complex debate. As such, the research group plans to interview users, programmers and mental health professionals to explore the risks and benefits of these resources in relation to the grieving process. Although the technology is still in the development phase, the initial prototypes created indicate that we may start seeing these tools in use sooner than we think. In South Korea, for example, a team of engineers and designers have already successfully created a 'virtual copy' of a deceased girl so that her mother could say goodbye to her.

According to Jiménez Alonso, "The use of this kind of tool raises a lot of questions, which is why we need to open the debate to look at all the aspects involved, from the psychological impact of these tools on the bereaved individuals to the legal debate regarding the use of the data belonging to the deceased," with the psychologist going on to point out that "technology has always formed part of our grieving experience at any given point in time". Previously it would have been via analogue methods, written documents and letters, for example. "Now, social media and chatbots are the new technologies that are transforming our way of coping with grief."

'Virtual cemeteries' and digital legacy

In a world in which social media plays a large part in a person's life, the debate about what happens after death moves into the digital sphere as well. Some social media networks such as Instagram or Facebook permit user profiles to be converted into 'memorialized accounts', while other platforms allow 'virtual cemeteries' to be created to honour the memory of former users, with some even allowing current subscribers to record a message for posterity.

Stressing the need for reflection, the researcher commented, "It's really important that we open a social debate about grief and death. Even more so now, when new technologies are transforming our experience of grief and even our way of understanding what death is."


The UOC's research and innovation (R&I) are helping 21st-century global societies to overcome pressing challenges by studying the interactions between ICT and human activity, with a specific focus on e-learning and e-health. Over 400 researchers and 50 research groups work among the University's seven faculties and two research centres: the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) and the eHealth Center (eHC).

The United Nations' 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and open knowledge serve as strategic pillars for the UOC's teaching, research and innovation. More information:research.uoc.edu#UOC25years

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