Life imitates art

Is Microsoft seeking to raise the dead? Image: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

I wonder how much Microsoft have paid Black Mirror series creator and writer Charlton Brooker for the idea behind one of Microsoft's recent patent applications?

There are many memorable stories in the anthology science fiction series and almost all are dystopian views of how current technologies and trends, particularly social ones, will evolve over the not too distant future.

First aired some eight years ago, the first episode of Black Mirror’s second season, “Be Right Back”, concerns Martha, a pregnant woman whose boyfriend Ash, the prospective father, dies in a traffic accident before the child is born.

Expectant and alone, Martha decides to use a new technology that simulates chat sessions with the now dead Ash, recreating his personality from his voluminous social media postings. What could possibly go wrong?

What does this have to do with Microsoft?

In a United States patent application lodged in December last year entitled “Creating a Conversational Chat Bot of a Specific Person”, Microsoft details a design that is eerily similar to the technology proposed by Brooker in “Be Right Back”.

Despite the patent including a computing device specifically intended for the chat sessions, it would be trivial to employ other computers such as existing laptops, tablets or phones. If the limitations requiring the device included in the patent are due to hardware requirements, I'm sure manufacturers will find it in their interests to create future phones with the required computing power.

Although the patent does not specifically target deceased loved ones, there are few (if any) circumstances in which it would seem better to chat with a bot representation of a known individual rather than the actual individual the bot is simulating.

Perhaps the designers intend to sell chat sessions with virtual celebrities; every monster can speak with Lady Gaga and all "Swifties" can call up Taylor for some advice with their latest relationships?

I doubt that any impact studies were performed by Microsoft or the United States patent office and I am "sure" that, unlike Brooker's forecast in Black Mirror, no psychological harm will come to users of the technology.

Your dead loved one only used social media platforms minimally, or even not at all? Not a problem for Microsoft; the proposed chat bot can employ a “generic chat index” to resurrect the deceased.

In Brooker's story, the technology evolved further over time, eventually culminating in an anthropomorphic robot, which although a chilling likeness of the dead Ash, was consigned to the attic, like all other possessions no longer in use. Whoops, I think I may have just spoiled the story…

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