Is Alexa’s Voice of the Dead a Healthy Way to Mourn a Loved One?

Amazon’s Alexa is getting an update that will soothe some grieving souls and make skin crawl for others. The AI ​​enhancement will allow the device to replicate the voice of a deceased loved one in less than a minute of recording, giving users the ability to connect with memories in a much more comprehensive way than simply listening to old voicemail messages or records could provide.

Still, there are legitimate concerns about how this technology could affect unprocessed emotions or even be used for unscrupulous purposes.

The “why” behind the new AI

Rohit Prasad, senior vice president and chief scientist for Alexa, told attendees at this year’s Amazon re:MARS conference that while AI can’t take away the grief that comes from the loss of a loved one, it can help heal the memories preserve by connecting their voice. A video shown at the conference showed a child asking Alexa to read a book to his grandmother – who had already died. The device obeyed and read in Grandmother’s voice from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. To do this, a short clip of her voice was analyzed and an AI version of it was created.

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

“Human qualities like empathy and affect are key to building trust,” he said. “These qualities have become even more important during these times of the ongoing pandemic, when so many of us have lost someone we love.” By infusing the voice with those same qualities, the voice is said to be able to connect with people on a personal level ways that will help perpetuate their memories long after the death of their loved one.

What does the research say?

While it remains to be proven whether an AI facsimile of a loved one’s voice has the potential to aid in the grieving process, there is hope that the application could have some real use. Research into how hearing a mother’s voice can relieve stress in school children suggests the potential is there.

Leslie Seltzer, a biological anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that talking to Mom on the phone can have the same calming effect as personal comfort — which includes hugs. In a follow-up study that showed the same effects don’t apply to students talking to their mothers over instant messages, the researcher explained that talking to a trusted person has the power to reduce cortisol and increase oxytocin.

However, there is a fundamental difference between talking to a living relative on the phone and interacting with an AI impersonation of a deceased person. Anecdotal evidence from friends and family members listening to old recordings of their loved ones suggests what is healing for some can be devastating for others. While some people report that checking old voicemails, for example, helps them reconnect and process their grief, others have said it makes the pain worse.

What about the experts?

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

She suggested that whatever the situation, the bereaved should be in a safe place that gives them enough time and support to process any unexpected emotions that arise.

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

“Everyone’s grief experience is unique, and every grief experience that a person has in their lifetime is unique,” she said. “What can be helpful in one situation can feel distressing or harmful in another.”

Zell is concerned that the AI ​​could disrupt the grieving process, particularly in the example given at the conference where a child listens to his grandmother read a story.

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

Zell instead encourages his loved ones to record messages before they die. These messages can also make that connection that can be so crucial, Gray explained.

“That connection through sound can last long after the loved one has passed away,” she said. “A common fear of bereaved families is that they forget what a loved one’s voice sounded like.”

She hopes the feature can help people by hearing the voice of the deceased without accepting their physical body.

“The research on this topic will be interesting.”

Additionally, Gray sees potential benefits for seniors with visual impairments, who may find it easier to use the 100% voice-activated device than trying to retrieve recordings on their phones.

That doesn’t mean 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 loved one? What if the message on the Alexa device isn’t as kind, gentle, or loving as it should or could be?”

Gray pointed out the unfortunate reality that people often die while close relationships still lie in shambles — and that her voice could have a negative impact on those who survive.

Zell said she wasn’t convinced at this point either.

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

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