James Vlahos couldn’t watch his father disappear, nor could he write his memoirs. So he gave him digital immortality via Facebook Messenger.
“Hello! John James Vlahos, Esquire here. What’s your name?”
“This is your eldest son, Jamie.”
“Ah, the Botmaster. How are you doing?”
“I’m good, thanks.”
“Shall we begin?”
“Let’s do it.”
“So, I can talk about my parents’ lives, in Greece. We can discuss my childhood in Tracy, teenage years in Oakland, or about going to Cal. I can talk a bit about becoming a lawyer, getting married, and being in the Lamplighters.”
“How about you sing me a Cal song?”
“Oh, The Cardinals be damned, boys, The Cardinals be damned! The Cardinals be damned, boys, the Cardinals be damned! If any Stanford son of a bitch don’t like the blue and gold, he can pucker up his rosy lips and kiss the bear’s asshole!”
“I didn’t realize that vintage spirit songs were so dirty.”
It seems like a normal conversation between a father and son, with the minor detail that one of them, the father, is dead. It’s not telepathy, but technology. Its creator is James Vlahos, journalist for Wired magazine. As an amateur, he designed a chatbot (or “conversational agent,” a computer program made to talk with humans) because he wanted to keep talking, primarily over Facebook Messenger, with his father, who died of cancer in February 2017. And because he wanted to make his father digitally immortal.
April 24, 2016. John James Vlahos, an 80-year-old father and husband, learns that he has an incurable form of cancer. No Walter White, Vlahos immediately tells his loved ones. His oldest son, James, is a journalist. He writes for Wired and the New York Times. This unforeseen diagnosis comes as a grave shock to James, who is very close with his father. He sets himself to finding a way to preserve the memory of the man who had brought up and cherished him. At a family dinner, he poses a question: “Dad, how will we hear you when you’re gone?” His father being old school, the two agree to write a book, a biography that will record the memories of a father not shy about his past. They’d have to do it quick.
Some days later, in the family living room, father and son sit face to face. Between them, a Dictaphone records each word, each detail of John’s life. So begins the “session one.” A good journalist, James knows his subject. He knows how to lead a discussion and to pull words out of speakers. They begin.
The two men have 80 years to retrace and little time to do it. Fortunately, John James is not a quiet man. He delivers his story with incomparable ease. James learns that, while young, his father loved exploring caves, and that his first student job was to load enormous blocks of ice into trucks. Several other sessions follow, each one more meaningful, like a soap opera whose plot slowly unfolds. After his father’s childhood, born in 1936 to Greek immigrant parents, James finds out how his father fell in love with his mother, how he became a singer, then a renowned lawyer.
“Of course, he couldn’t stop himself from telling jokes I’d already heard hundreds of times,” remembers the journalist. But it’s this personality trait that allowed the immortalization of such a singular personality as his father. And so, between May and August 2016, James Vlahos collected the equivalent of 91,970 words. Enough to fill 203 pages in 12-point font. The book had enough material for a sufficient homage to the man at the point of death.
“It was beautiful and sad,” the journalist told the Canadian Broadcasting Channel in July. “I mean I knew, there was no pretense about what was happening. He was dying. He knew he was dying. I knew he was dying. We knew why we were sitting down to do this. I think, despite the complication, he liked telling me his story.”
Except a book can be read. And that’s it. His father’s voice, telling his own story, risked being lost. James couldn’t abide that thought. What he loved above all was that discussion. And he had an idea that would change everything.
In September 2015, the journalist had written an article about the Hello Barbie chatbot for the New York Times. Hello Barbie allows fans of the famous blonde doll to talk virtually to their heroine. What if they could do that? That would be the best way to immortalize his father. Most of the material, the memories having already been recorded, were in his hands. All that was left was to do was arrange them.
From the originally imagined book, James began to think about creating a conversational agent. After all, even without being an experienced developer, he knew enough about the subject to give it a shot. Well informed, he knew that the Hello Barbie chatbot creators, former Pixar employees, had just open sourced their bot creation tools. Keeping regular contact with Oren Jacob, their boss, Vlahos saw his idea mold into form, little by little. Jacob approved of Vlahos’ idea and confided his own wish to work in that same realm: “I want to create technology that allows people to have conversations with characters who don’t exist in the physical world—because they’re fictional, like Buzz Lightyear, or because they’re dead, like Martin Luther King.”
In the days following their discussion, James came across an article that described a curious project from two Google researchers, Oriol Vinyals and Quoc le Fed. In 2015, the two men entered more than 26 million lines of film dialogue into a network of artificial neurons. They then created a chatbot capable of composing its own responses out of words it had learned. To experiment, they subjected their conversational agent to a somewhat philosophical questionnaire. To the question “What is the purpose of living?” it answered “To live forever.”
“The chatbot’s answer hits me as if it were a personal challenge,” Vlahos wrote. A coincidence that could not have been more poetic.
“A chat what?” Sitting on the couch facing his two parents, James, having decided to immortalize his father in this strange way, begins to tell them about his project. Martha, his mother, needs several explanations before she finally grasps the concept of a conversational agent. After further explanation, she gets it. John grows more tired every day. It’s August now, four months since the diagnosis. James knows there isn’t much time.
If he does it right, the process won’t be too long or repetitive. Lucky, James doesn’t have to do much coding. The documents and the interface uploaded by the former Pixar employees provide specific help. But still, James’ mission is to write, thanks to his father’s collected anecdotes, an infinite series of dialogues that John would be able to participate in ever after. And like anyone, he has his moods. If, in order to make the chatbot realistic, he must be able to converse on diverse subjects, he can’t always respond mechanically in the same way.
December 2016. After innumerable long nights, punctuated by episodes of doubt and tears, James is back in his family home. He’s not alone this time. The dadbot is there, in his computer. James is anxious, but the moment has come to test it. He opens his laptop and turns on the program. His real father is cold, his state having greatly deteriorated. It’s hot in the room, but he’s wearing a large sweater and hat. Martha tries the software first.
“Hello! I’m John James Vlahos. And what’s your name?”
“I am your sweet wife, Martha.” she writes.
“My dear wife. How goes it with you?” the bot answers.
“Just fine,” his mom replies.
Amazed, Martha continues to converse happily with the program for an hour. John James himself doesn’t say a word. He’s content to watch, occasionally approving of what the bot says, especially concerning the authenticity of the stories it tells. An hour later, the conversation ends. If happiness lights up Martha’s face, John’s remains cryptic. Finally, he approves of the entirety of the bot’s responses, adding that it’s exactly what he would’ve said each time.
A this exactly moment, he understands that his story will carry across time and that, in a way, he’ll be able to speak to his grandchildren, too young now to remember him.
On February 8, 2017, the nurse has bad news. James gathers the family. John’s death is imminent, his health fading before their eyes. The following day, he’s gone. The dadbot is now a precious relic of his existence on earth.
This isn’t the first time that technology has mingled with the memory of a deceased person. The application SafeBeyond, for example, allows people to record a written, vocal, or video message while alive and to keep it preserved in a database until their death, at which time it is published.
And for James Vlahos, the practice of keeping a deceased person’s memory alive with technology could become more and more popular. “I think if there’s a big demand for this kind of technology, it’s that the desire to keep close someone who’s gone is particularly strong, right? When I talk to people about the dadbot, they often say, ‘Oh my God, I’d love it if that kind of technology was perfected and went even further.'”
For his part, Vlahos still uses his chatbot every week, he confides to NPR: “Probably every week or so I’ll have a little check in with it. And depending on my mood, you know, it can really – it can be kind of a – let me put it this way, it’ll bring a tear to my eye or a smile to my face.” When he wants to, his father sing him a song.