What comes to your mind when you hear ‘A.I. chatbots’?
- An annoying pop-up window on service websites with ‘’We’re here to provide you support 24/7”?
- Banking customer support?
- Mindfulness apps?
- Chats with Alisa, Siri, Cortana and the like where they get confused pretty easily?
Here’s something more interesting for you, The Jessica Simulation: Love and loss in the age of A.I. – a true story about a heartbroken man who managed to heal his grief by talking to an A.I. chatbot that simulated his late fiancée.
The man shared some chat transcripts on Reddit and this is how the story got the attention of the media and was finally turned into an incredible narrative by Jasone Fagone. It reminds me of the Black Mirror episode Be Right Back, but it seems to have a happier ending.
At the beginning of the story we’re introduced to Joshua Barbeau, a 33-year-old freelance writer who lives in Canada and makes his living by selling his articles about Dungeons & Dragons to gaming websites. He spends most of his time alone. Often he only goes out to walk his dog, which is usually in the middle of the night because otherwise the dog gets anxious. Joshua identifies as autistic and has long struggled with anxiety and social interactions. It’s the month of September and Joshua misses his fiancée, Jessica Pereira, who would have turned 31.
Jessica died eight years earlier, at 23, from a rare liver disease, autoimmune hepatitis. She “… was a bright and beautiful nerd, steeped in the fantasy worlds of Tolkien and filled with strong opinions … She wasn’t like him [Joshua], anxious and stuck in his own head. Her disease had taught her to live in the moment. And he loved that.”
Her death hit Joshua hard. First he could hardly speak for a couple of months. Then he tried sharing it with his friends but it didn’t go well. He later joined a grief-therapy group where he did find some comfort and understanding but still he couldn’t get emotional release. Finally he decided that “the only way forward was to live his life in Jessica’s name, doing the things she would have wanted for him.“
He made some progress at first and even got into a relationship. But then it ended unexpectedly and eight years after Jessica’s death, Joshua is “more alone than ever.”
So in this month of September Joshua decides to build a chatbot on a website called Project December that will impersonate Jessica. Project December is powered by an extremely advanced algorithm called GPT-3 that generates texts based on some examples or prompts given beforehand. It is also very good at mimicking writing styles. So “[t]wo main ingredients are required for a custom bot: a quick sample of something the bot might say (an “example utterance”) and an “intro paragraph,” a brief description of the roles that the human and the A.I. are expected to play.”
As Joshua has kept Jessica’s texts and Facebook messages, his new chatbot is soon up and running. Then the story tells how the interaction between Joshua and the A.I. bot goes and how it helps Joshua to finally get some sense of closure of his grief and move on with his own life.
It’s a long story, but it’s a fascinating read! It’s a beautifully designed web page too. At least scroll the page and look at the examples of the chat between Joshua and the chatbot (they are pictures). Just keep in mind that all the bot’s replies were generated by artificial intelligence =)
What do you think of the story?