Thursday, September 14, 2017


While perusing the website of the monthly technology magazine, Wired, the other day, I came across a video by James Vlahos, currently one of their own staff writers but formerly a contributing author at the New York Times, GQ, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and National Geographic Adventure. It was an interesting experience, watching that video—which is just slightly over seven and a half minutes long—but also a slightly disorienting one. Part of me was intrigued. Another part of me was envious. And still another part of me was at least slightly appalled. And so, figuring that anything that triggers such a strange set of such conflicting emotions in me will likely be worth presenting to my readers in this space, I decided to write this final time before Rosh Hashanah and to present Vlahos’ work to you.

The video is about his creation of Dadbot, which was his name for the chatbot he created while he father was dying so that he could continue to converse, sort of, with his father after the latter died. To see the video and hear its creator describe his project, click here.

To appreciate this accomplishment, you have to understand the concept of a chatbot. But even if the term will possibly be unfamiliar to most, the concept is all too well known to all of us who have telephones and endlessly receive sales calls on them. Some are just recordings. (I hang up immediately.) Some are actual people. (I wait for the speaker to catch his or her breath, then I politely ask them never, ever, to call me back. And then I hang up.)  But the most sophisticated robo-callers are chatbots—computer programs that are programmed to respond to you as though they were human beings listening to what you have to say and responding appropriately and even colloquially. Occasionally, I’ve been taken in. I suppose we all have. Just the other day, for example, I picked up the phone and a woman’s voice said that she was Jennifer and that she had an important message for me. She paused. I asked, I thought cleverly, if she was a person or a machine. And then, when I stopped speaking, she responded entirely reasonably, “Of course, I’m a person.” Something about her intonation made me suspect that she was a chatbot, however, so I asked her if she could further prove her humanness by reminding me what state Tallahassee is the capital of. She responded by repeating that her name was Jennifer and that she was calling with an important message for me, and with that our brief relationship, such as it was, ended with me hanging up the phone. I’m sure Jenn will eventually give me another try, though, possibly after reviewing her state capitals.

The earliest chatbots were developed in the 1960s, and they have become increasingly more sophisticated since then with every passing decade. But all chatbots, from the least to the most sophisticated, have at least one thing in common: they are essentially elaborate parlor tricks designed to make you feel that you are speaking to a human being, not instances of machines being endowed with the digital brainpower actually to engage in what any of us would normally call a “real” conversation, the kind in which one party speaks and the other party understands what was just said and then responds intelligently but in a non-predetermined way. Almost all chatbots use language-triggers to develop dialogue, for example by listening for the word “father” in the human speaker’s remarks and then responding, “So interesting…but please tell me more about both your parents.” But none actually thinks. Or, to use the term the way we normally use it daily discourse, speaks. Not really!

James Vlahos’ father, John James Vlahos, died just this last February. They were very close, and there are very touching moments on the video where James has to pause because he is simply too choked by emotion to continue. But whereas most of us somehow make our peace with the dead being beyond meaningful communication, Vlahos decided to respond to that thought by creating a chatbot featuring his father’s voice.

Before their father died, Vlahos and his siblings undertook an oral history project in the course of which they recorded a dozen hours of their father’s reminiscences regarding his childhood, his family, his career, his marriage, his children, and his life. They also took voluminous notes, which effort yielded about two hundred pages of extra material. Plus, of course, Vlahos and his siblings knew their father for decades and could easily imagine him responding to specific questions with specific expressions that he like to use and said all the time.  But none of that would have mattered much if Vlahos hadn’t been able to bring his technological training to bear—and specifically his ability to use an artificial intelligence computer program called PullString. (For more about PullString, click here.)  And so, using that specific program to bring together thousands of sentences his father actually uttered and to match them to appropriate word-triggers, he created Dadbot, a chatbot capable of playing the role of his father in an ongoing dialogue left unimpeded by the detail that one of the dialogists was gone from the world. Plus, Vlahos had a large store of stories and favorite songs recorded by his father over the years in various contexts, and those too he was able insert into the program where appropriate.

Is it meaningful or silly, the Dadbot? His father isn’t really there, of course. Or is he? We “are” lots of things in this world, but surely one of those things is what we say, how we speak, the words we choose to express our thoughts, our mannerisms of language and self-expression. Why is what Vlahos did any less “real” than preserving photographs of our late parents or grandparents? Those pictures aren’t our actual grandparents either! But they preserve the way they looked, not entirely unlike the way the Dadbot preserves the way James Vlahos’s father sounded. And although I suppose you could say the same thing about any recording made pre-posthumously by anyone at all—that it preserves the way that person sounded—this is really so much more than just a cleverly edited recording that it seems to bear evaluation on its own terms. I suppose I’m envious more than anything else because I wish my Dad lived on in my phone the way his father lives on in his. After all, saying that his father lives on in his phone isn’t quite as crazy as saying that his father actually lives in his phone! That, of course, really would be impossible.

I have a few recordings of my father’s voice, but I never listen to them. I’m not even sure why not. I would certainly recognize his voice anywhere. I would love to have a final (or, even better, a not final) conversation with him, and surely hearing his voice would trigger all sorts of associations that are probably lying dormant within me just waiting for the appropriate stimulus to elicit them from my memory banks. I do not have any recordings of my mother’s voice, which I regret. (The obvious paradox of me wishing I had recordings that I don’t have and not using listening to the ones I do have will for the moment have to remain unresolved.) I hear my father’s voice all the time, of course. Just I hear it inside my head, where his ghost plants them, not in my ear courtesy of a Dadbot. Is that a profound difference? It is! (Or is it?)

And so we come to our High Holiday season, which we celebrate with our families living and long gone as we all crowd into the sanctuary to participate in the services that, more than anything, awaken in us a sense that the distinction between time past and time future dissolves in the flow of associative memories that our prayers—and particularly the most ancient ones—call up easily in every Jewish breast. Maybe that’s the reason I find the whole concept of a Dadbot so resonant—not because I don’t wish I had one (which I sort of do), but because, in the end, I don’t need one, just as none of us really does…and particularly not at this time of the year when our parents are with us either in body or in spirit, when their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents are palpably present even in their physical absence, when we pause to notice how comfortable we have grown over the years feeling the air overhead heavy with the spirits of all our ancestors as we gather in our sanctuary on these High Holidays, and particular (of course) during Yizkor. So who needs our parents to live in our phones?

We sometimes lose track of the fact that when technology mimics life, it doesn’t need also to replace it. I remember when my daughter Lucy, then a little girl, was amazed to learn that it’s possible to play solitaire without a computer. I suppose it’s possible my great-grandchildren, please God, will find it surprising that it’s possible to read a book without having to plug your book-reading-device in first. Or that it’s possible to determine if it’s raining outside without using any data at all. Or that you can achieve same-day delivery of purchases—and for free—by taking yourself physically to an actual store and buying something there in person.  Or that you can commune with your late parents without a phone, without any expertise in PullString, and without any actual digital programming skill at all simply by coming to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, opening a Machzor, and allowing its ancient words to make fall the scales from your eyes and to allow you to see the world of the living and the dead as it truly is.

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