If you could talk to your deceased parent, what would you ask them? Although he lost his father to cancer, James Vlahos asks his father questions whenever he wants. What’s more is he gets answers back.
When Vlahos’ father, John, was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, James wanted to find a way to keep part of him alive. He set out to create an oral history of his father, and spent hours recording his dad’s life story. His father talked about his childhood, how he fell in love with James’ mother, and tells jokes his son had heard a thousand times before. He also gave details of his life James had never heard before. In all, they recorded 91,970 words, which Vlahos transcribed into pages that would temporarily sit on a bookshelf.
Then he thought of a better way to keep his dad close -- The “Dadbot.” It’s is a chatbot programmed with his father’s recorded answers. His father’s digital brain, if you will.
With his father’s approval, Vlahos put all the recorded conversations into a software program called PullString. The journalist came across the technology while working on an article about the quest to make an artificially intelligent Barbie. To his delight, it allowed for someone without a coding background to program a conversational bot.
PullString is a pattern matching type of Artificial Intelligence where the bot speaks, and then listens. Based on the user’s response, it then goes to the next set of responses that have been programmed. It works much like Amazon’s Alexa, and other products with voice recognition and machine learning in the “conversational computing” business.
Vlahos told NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro, “It seemed better than just having this giant binder full of his words that had been transcribed. That's good, too. But the ability to sort of have him, you know, tell me a story about when you were in college. What do you know about your mom when she was a little girl in Greece? To be able to ask a chatbot all of these things and get answers, it just - it started to seem more and more worthwhile.”
“Dadbot” is filled with flaws, and doesn’t come close to replacing his father. But it was never supposed to. The real magic came from spending time with his father, and hearing all the stories he would later program into “Dadbot”. Technology and flaws aside, “Dadbot’ is just a son trying to connect with his father.
“I'm not under any delusion that I've somehow created this, you know, robot version of my dad from science fiction. Like, my real dad is gone, and I and the family have to mourn that. But I have created something that shares nice memories of him and brings him to life, I hope, in little vivid ways,” he said in his interview with NPR.
You can read Vlahos’ story "Dadbot," at wired.com.
Watch the video to see how the “Dadbot” was given life.