A Son Talks To His Dead Father with an AI Chatbot He Created Called ‘Dadbot’

WIRED published this video of James Vlahos, a writer and author who used his dying father’s documents to create an AI chatbot called “Dadbot”, so he can still talk to him after his passing.

Disclosure: I work at Conde Nast Entertainment in digital video operations, which publishes CNE-produced videos for WIRED. I saw this video on our publishing calendar and I was torn about watching it. My father passed on July 13th, 2006. This video published on July 18th and I stared at it on our calendar every day throughout the week I hate most – the week leading up to the anniversary of my dad’s death.

Every July 13th since 2006, I don’t want to do anything. Friends and family members usually send me a consolatory message. I dread the day. I wake up and I don’t want to do anything. It’s an uphill battle to get anything done at work. I’m sluggish and mopey. I try to distract myself with stupid videos or funny memes or hypnotizing gifs. But, any ‘high’ I might feel from them is fleeting and I crash right back down once my mind latches back on to the significance of the date.

James Michael Lynch Jr and Neal Lynch

James Michael Lynch Jr (right) and Neal Lynch (left)

Would I want a dadbot? Yes and no. Yes because I miss him. No because it’s … not him. It’s a machine that’s learned how to impersonate my father. Would I want a clone of my father that’s like 90% him? That’s a tough call. I don’t think I’d be comfortable with the 10% I know isn’t him.

Over the years, on the anniversary of his passing, I’ve posted little short notes on Facebook and Twitter. For some reason, I felt compelled to. Like, people were waiting for me to acknowledge it publicly. And, I thought if I didn’t do it, then somehow that means I don’t love him.

I got to thinking about that gesture and I thought ‘what’s the point?’ Me writing some emotional monologue isn’t going to bring him back. So, why do we do it? To get people to sympathize or empathize with us? For reassurance or reinforcement?

Even writing this blog post feels self-aggrandizing. Like, I’m begging for attention. But, then I think about when my sister or mother posts about him. I don’t think negatively of them. I see their post as cathartic.

This year, I decided to write a letter to my dad. Here are the first couple sentences:

“Hey Dad, it’s been 11 years to the day since you’ve passed. It’s fucking dumb that I have to say that. It’s fucking dumb that I’m writing you. You’re not alive. Your body doesn’t exist anymore.”

Off to a great start! It’s that ongoing debate in my brain that rips me apart: “It’s healthy to talk about what I’m feeling and to talk to him because externalizing these emotions will lessen the burden and grief” vs. “This is pointless, he’s dead and gone and no amount of talking will change that.”

One of the top comments on this video’s Reddit page thinks the Dadbot will only delay or stunt the son’s ability to process grief. That would be a huge concern, the inability to let go. The onset of irreparable delusion. I mean, at one point, the son is disappointed HIS SMARTPHONE DIDN’T SAY IT LOVES HIM!!! Of course, he meant his dad, but it’s not dad, it’s his phone.

The ‘premise’ isn’t that new. In 2015, Eugenia Kuyda ‘recreated’ her best friend Roman Mazurenko after he died. Those close to him are grateful for the opportunity to communicate. Those on the outside thought it was wrong or regressive.

In August 2011, TED published Adam Ostrow’s talk on this subject:

Most commenters on Reddit and YouTube cited the video reminded them of an episode of Black Mirror titled “Be Right Back“. In this episode, the first of the second series (season), a woman loses her husband in a car crash then uses to AI technology to communicate with him. The tech starts pretty much exactly like the video you see from WIRED then eventually advances to the point where the AI is transferred into a nearly identical host body of her deceased lover.

Fun Fact via IMDB:

“In the movie Ex Machina, Domhnall Gleeson plays a human with an android love interest. This is a complete contrast to his character in Be Right Back, where he is the android love of a human.”

Megan Logan called “Be Right Back” the single most impactful episode of the series back when Season 3 premiered on Netflix. Jacob Hall of Slashfilm ranked BRB as the fourth best installment. The moral of the story? As Hall puts it, “The healing process can only be complete when you have moved on.”

And then there’s Westworld, which is Black Mirror‘s “Be Right Back” times a million. I don’t need Russian hackers fucking with my father’s ‘host’ and turning my worst nightmare (in my dream, my dad’s violently pissed for some unknown reason) into a living night terror (so, that’s what my dad looks like holding a machine gun).

As much as I’d love to have my father back, having his facsimile would cause more damage than good… right?

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