Can AI Help Us Communicate With The Dead?

When I was growing up, we had a Ouija board in our home. But no one was allowed to use it, so it was hidden in the bottom of a forgotten closet. It was, according to my mother, “a thing of the devil.”

At this point, you might have two questions: What is a Ouija board -- and if it was evil, why did we have one in the first place?

Ouija boards first gained popularity with the rise of the spiritualist movement in the late 1800s. They were also called spirit boards or witch boards. By the turn of the last century, they had become a parlor game, marketed by the Kennard Novelty Company.

The board was supposedly used to communicate with spirits of those who had passed on, speaking from the other side by moving a piece of wood around the board, answering yes or no questions or spelling out comments.

That brings us to why we had the board. My father died suddenly in 1962 at the age of 27. I was one year old when he passed away. My mother was just 24 and, in the span of a disappearing heartbeat, became both a widow and a single mother. My father did everything for my mom. And now, suddenly, he was gone.



Mom, as you may have guessed from the “devil” comment, was always quite religious. And despite the church frowning heavily on things like Ouija boards, her grief was such that she was convinced by a friend to try the board to talk once more to her departed husband, the love of her young life.

She never told me exactly what came from this experiment, but suffice to say that after that, the board was moved to the bottom of the closet, underneath a big cardboard box of other things we couldn’t use but also couldn’t throw away. It was never used again. I suspect some of my father’s things were also tucked away in that box.

While Ouija boards are not as popular as they once were, they’re still around. Hasbro now markets them, and you can even buy one through Amazon, if the spirit moves you.

Various church leaders are still warning us not to use Ouija boards. One religious online publication cautions, “Ouija boards are not innocent toys that can be played at Halloween parties. They can have grave spiritual consequences that can last years, leading a person down the dark path of Satan’s lies.”

Consider yourself duly warned.

Of course, in the 62 years since my father passed away, technology has added a new wrinkle or two to our ability to talk to the dead. We can now do it through AI.

At the Amazon re:MARS conference in 2022, Senior Vice President Rohit Prasad told attendees the company was working on ways to change Alexa’s voice to that of anyone, living or dead. A video showed Alexa reading a bedtime story to a young child in the voice of his grandmother (presumably no longer with us to read the story herself).

Prasad said Alexa could collect enough voice data from less than a minute of audio to make this personalization possible. While that may seem weird, or even creepy, to most of us, Prasad was nonplussed: “While AI can’t eliminate that pain of loss, it can definitely make [loved ones'] memories last.”

A recent CNN article talked about other ways the grieving are using AI to stay in touch with their dearly departed. Rather than using a wooden pointer to laboriously spell out answers on a board, an AI avatar based on someone who has passed on can carry on a real-time conversation with us. If you train it with the right data, it can answer questions and provide advice.

You can even create a video of those no longer here and chat with them. I know if any of these technologies were around 62 years ago, my mom would probably have tried them.

I spent much of my childhood watching my mother deal with her grief, so I certainly wouldn’t want to pass judgement on anyone willing to try anything to help heal the scars of loss. Still, this seems e a dangerous path to go down, and not just because you may end up unknowingly chatting with demons.

As Mary-Frances O’Connor, a University of Arizona professor who studies grief, said in the CNN article, “When we fall in love with someone, the brain encodes that person as, ‘I will always be there for you and you will always be there for me.’ When they die, our brain has to understand that this person isn’t coming back.”

In 1969, psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross defined the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While these have been criticized as being overly simplistic and misleading, it is commonly understood that, at some point, acceptance allows us to move on with our own lives. That might be harder to do if you’re lugging an AI-powered Ouija board with you.

My mom understood: Some things are better left at the bottom of a forgotten closet.

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