Is Alexa’s voice of the dead a healthy way to grieve a loved one?

By Riya Anne Polcastro

Amazon’s Alexa is getting an update that may soothe some grieving souls while making others’ skin crawl. The AI enhancement will enable the device to replicate a deceased loved one’s voice from less than a minute of recording, allowing users the opportunity to connect with memories in a much more extensive manner than simply listening to old voicemail messages or recordings might provide.

Still, there are reasonable concerns regarding how this technology could impact unprocessed emotions or even be used for unscrupulous purposes.

The ‘why’ behind the new AI

Rohit Prasad, senior vice president and head scientist for Alexa, told attendees at this year’s Amazon re:MARS conference  that while AI cannot take away the grief that comes from losing a loved one, it can help keep the memories around by providing a connection with their voice. A video played at the conference featured a child asking Alexa to have his grandmother – who had already died – read a book. The device obliged and read from “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” in the grandmother’s voice. It was able to do so by analyzing a short clip of her voice and creating an AI version of it.

At the conference, Prasad mentioned “the companionship relationship” people have with their Alexa devices:

“Human attributes like empathy and affect are key to building trust,” he said. “These attributes have become even more important in these times of the ongoing pandemic, when so many of us have lost someone we love.” By giving the voice those same attributes, his plan is for the voice to be able to connect with people in a way that helps maintain their memories long after their loved one is gone.

What does the research say?

While it’s yet to be proven whether an AI facsimile of a loved one’s voice has the potential to assist in the grieving process, there’s hope there could be a real benefit to the application. Research into how hearing a mother’s voice can ease stress among schoolchildren suggests the potential is there.

Leslie Seltzer, a biological anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, determined that talking to Mom on the phone can have the same calming effects as receiving in-person comfort—which included hugs. In a follow-up study that demonstrated the same effects don’t hold for students conversing with their mothers through instant messages, the researcher explained that speaking with someone trustworthy has the power to reduce cortisol and increase oxytocin.

There is, however, a fundamental difference between talking to a living relative on the phone and interacting with an AI imitation of someone who is gone. Anecdotal evidence of friends and family listening to old recordings of their loved ones suggests that what is healing for some may be devastating for others. While some people report that listening to old voicemails, for example, help them reconnect and process their grief, others have said it made the pain worse.

What about the experts?

Dianne Gray, a certified grief specialist, also pointed out it could go either way. She explained the Alexa feature could “be immensely helpful or, conversely, act as a trigger that brings grief back up to the surface.”

She suggested regardless of the situation, the mourner should be in a safe space that will allow them enough time and support to work through any unexpected emotions that come up.

Likewise, Holly Zell, a licensed clinical professional counselor intern specializing in death and grief, agreed:

“Every person’s grief experience is unique, and each grief experience a person has across their life is unique,” she said. “What might be helpful in one situation might feel distressing or harmful in another.”

Zell is concerned the AI could interfere with the grieving process, particularly with the example given at the conference of a child listening to their grandmother read a story.

“One of the most challenging and also important aspects of grief is acceptance, which involves acknowledging that the death has happened and that certain things change in relationships after death,” she said. “It can be healthy to have a sense of a ‘continued’ relationship after death, but this is not meant to be in conflict with acceptance.”

Zell instead encourages having loved ones record messages before they pass. Those messages can also provide that connection that can be so crucial, Gray explained.

“This connection via sound can continue long after the loved one has died,” she said. “A common fear of the bereaved is that they will forget what a loved one’s voice sounded like.”

She’s hopeful that by hearing the voice of the deceased without their physical body, the feature can help people navigate acceptance.

“Research will be interesting on this topic.”

Additionally, Gray sees potential benefit for seniors with low vision who may find it easier to use the 100% voice-activated device than if they were trying to pull up recordings on their phones.

That doesn’t mean the AI is risk-free, she explained.

“What if there are things left unsaid, disharmony or abuse between the voice on the Alexa device and the beloved? What if the message on the Alexa device is not as kind, gentle or loving as it should or could be?”

Gray pointed to the unfortunate reality that people often die with close relationships still in tatters—and that their voice could have a negative impact on survivors.

Zell said she also remains unconvinced at this point.

“I’m sure there are people who will find this comforting or helpful. I personally and professionally feel skeptical of this as a useful tool, and would strongly encourage people to find their own meaningful ways to include their lost loved ones into their lives through photos, stories, videos/recordings and other experiences.”

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