Voicing concern | 

News that Amazon's Alexa can 'reincarnate' dead relatives is a bit creepy

Amazon has revealed how new technology enabling its best- selling digital assistant to mimic anyone's voice is getting closer

Amazon’s Alexa

Deirdre Reynolds

One of things anyone who's lost a loved one fears most is forgetting the sound of their voice.

So why was I so creeped out by news this week that Alexa could soon 'reincarnate' dead relatives?

Amazon has revealed how new technology enabling its best- selling digital assistant to mimic anyone's voice is getting closer.

Forget: 'Alexa, is it going to rain today?'

Now it'll be: 'Here, Ma, where did I leave my car keys?'

Teasing the development at Wednesday's re: MARS 2022 conference in Las Vegas, head scientist Rohit Prasad explained how less than a minute of audio would be needed to reanimate someone's voice for the popular household device.

The aim, he continued, was for "generalisable intelligence" rather than the freaky "uber-artificial" stuff of science-fiction movies.

To demonstrate, an AI granny was heard reading her grandson a bedtime story after he asked Alexa: "Can grandma finish reading me the Wizard of Oz?"

So much for 'rest in peace' - these days dearly departed family members don't even get to enjoy the great hereafter without being resurrected to help mind the kids or play Ed Sheeran's latest hit.

It wouldn't be the first time computer wizardry has been used to bring someone back from the dead.

After his sudden death at the age of 61, Hollywood legend Oliver Reed was revived to finish his scenes in Ridley Scott's 2000 epic Gladiator, at a reported cost of €3m for 2 minutes of film, winning the actor a posthumous Bafta for his role as slave owner Proximo.

In 2018, Russian techtrepreneur Eugenia Kuyda created a chatbot to invoke her best friend, Roman, who was killed in a hit-and-run aged 32, using old text messages to help simulate natural 'conversations' with her late pal on AI app Replika.

It's a not-so-distant future that was previously explored by an episode of television mind-bender, Black Mirror, which saw a grieving woman (played by Haley Atwell) turn to a digital avatar echoing the personality of her dead fiancé (played by Domhnall Gleeson) for comfort, eventually upgrading to a robot doppelganger, complete with synthetic skin featuring every wrinkle and mole that her husband-to-be had.

The upshot, as in real life, was - that as unnervingly close as it came - the droid couldn't replace the real thing, only compounding her grief by making her miss him even more.

Whether it will cost any more than the €99 price tag for an Alexa-compatible Echo speaker to digitally dig up granny or grandad thanks to Amazon's latest technology remains to be seen.

Although it may give comfort to some, personally, I won't be rushing to provide a treasured voicemail to avail of the service, or signing up to others like Eternime, which mines your social media accounts to build up a digital clone so you can Skype friends long after you're pushing up daisies.

Other companies, like Microsoft, are treading more cautiously, this week publishing new ethics rules that place strict limits on who can create synthetic voices and how they can be used.

In the meantime, maybe embarrassing commands like 'add toilet roll to the shopping list' should be left to Alexa - and not dead family members.

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