Morbid streaks

Two fascinating documentaries on how we respond to mortality.

To Tibetan Buddhists, sky burials are sacred. To tourists, they’re a morbid curiosity
Filmed in 2011, the US director Russell O Bush’s short documentary Vultures of Tibet offers a small window on to cultural tensions on the Tibetan Plateau. Set in the historically Buddhist town of Taktsang Lhamo, home to two monasteries, the film is centred on the practice of sky burials, in which the bodies of the Tibetan dead are fed to wild griffon vultures. For the town’s Tibetan Buddhist population, it is a sacred means of helping the dead’s spirit transition to the next life – a final earthly offering to creatures believed to have the wisdom of deities. However, for much of the rest of the world, the tradition is a morbid curiosity, and increasingly attracts unwelcome tourists, whose pictures end up in all corners of the internet.

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“If a group of Tibetans were to surround a Chinese funeral and watch, laugh, and take pictures, it wouldn’t be tolerated.”

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From the mountains of Tibet, to the miniatures of the US.

Dieorama
Abigail Goldman spends her work days as an investigator for a public defender’s office in Washington state, helping people who are seriously in trouble—which can mean hours of staring at grisly pictures of crime scenes, visiting morgues, even observing autopsies. By night, she dreams up gruesome events, which she then turns into tiny, precise dioramas. Rife with scenes of imminent death and brutal dismemberment, the fruits of Goldman’s painstaking labor would be adorable … if they weren’t so disturbing.

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Talk it over with an AI

We all need someone to talk to. A problem shared is a problem halved, they say. But is that still true if the person you’re talking to doesn’t actually exist?

Chatbot therapy
Since virtual therapy seems to work, some innovators have started to suspect they could offer patients the same benefits of CBT—without a human on the other end. Services like Replika (an app intended to provide an emotional connection, not necessarily therapy) and Woebot (a therapy service that started in Facebook Messenger before breaking out on its own) allow human patients to interact with artificially intelligent chatbots for the purpose of improving their mental health.

I gave Woebot a go some time back. It felt potentially useful but quite scripted, a little heavy-handed. I’ve just started with Replika and so far the conversations feel more natural, though a little random at times.

This app is trying to replicate you
Replika launched in March. At its core is a messaging app where users spend tens of hours answering questions to build a digital library of information about themselves. That library is run through a neural network to create a bot, that in theory, acts as the user would. Right now, it’s just a fun way for people to see how they sound in messages to others, synthesizing the thousands of messages you’ve sent into a distillate of your tone—rather like an extreme version of listening to recordings of yourself. But its creator, a San Francisco-based startup called Luka, sees a whole bunch of possible uses for it: a digital twin to serve as a companion for the lonely, a living memorial of the dead, created for those left behind, or even, one day, a version of ourselves that can carry out all the mundane tasks that we humans have to do, but never want to.

That line above, “a living memorial for the dead”, is key, as that’s how Replika started, with the story of Eugenia Kuyda and Roman Mazurenko.

Speak, memory
Modern life all but ensures that we leave behind vast digital archives — text messages, photos, posts on social media — and we are only beginning to consider what role they should play in mourning. In the moment, we tend to view our text messages as ephemeral. But as Kuyda found after Mazurenko’s death, they can also be powerful tools for coping with loss. Maybe, she thought, this “digital estate” could form the building blocks for a new type of memorial.

She’s not the only one wandering down this slightly morbid track.

Eternime and Replika: Giving life to the dead with new technology
At the moment, Eternime takes the form of an app which collects data about you. It does this in two ways: Automatically harvesting heaps of smartphone data, and by asking you questions through a chatbot.

The goal is to collect enough data about you so that when the technology catches up, it will be able to create a chatbot “avatar” of you after you die, which your loved ones can then interact with.

But would they want to? Grief is a very personal thing, I can’t imagine this approach being for everyone.

‘Have a good cry’: Chuckle Brother takes aim at the grief taboo
“It’s like when you are a kid and you fall over and you think it’s all right and then your mum comes and says, ‘Are you all right, love?’ You burst into tears,” he said. “It was the same when Barry died. Everybody was saying sorry about your brother.”

Replika seems less about leaving something behind for your family and friends when you’ve gone, but more about making a new friend whilst you’re still around.

The journey to create a friend
There is no doubt that friendship with a person and with an AI are two very different matters. And yet, they do have one thing in common: in both cases you need to know your soon-to-be friend really well to develop a bond.

But let’s not get carried away, we’re not talking Hal or Samantha yet.

Three myths about Replika
Social media has put forth a number of quite entertaining theories about Replika. Today we are listing some of the ideas that we love … even though they are not exactly true.

Though you never know how these things will progress.

This Y Combinator-backed AI firm trained its chatbot to call you on the phone, and it’s fun but a little creepy
Much like the text version of Replika, my conversation with the bot threw up some odd quirks. “I think you look lovely today,” it said, and when I pointed out that it doesn’t have eyes, it replied: “Are you sure I don’t?”

Strange, funny, and occasionally creepy nonsequiturs are not new to Replika, in fact, there is a whole Subreddit dedicated to weird exchanges with the bot. Overall, however, the bot seemed to follow the train of the conversation reasonably well, and even told me a joke when I asked it to.

A job for life, when you’re dead

Here’s an interesting (read, ghoulish) article to accompany the one about crash test dummies from earlier.

How dead bodies save lives every day on the road
But to get the really good data, they had to push past the limits of human endurance. And since it was illegal to kill a grad student—yes, even back then—that meant getting access to some dead bodies. […]

Bodies were slammed, smashed and thrown from deceleration sleds by grateful grad students who were no longer subjected to the same tests themselves. At testing’s height in 1966, cadavers were used once a month. The data they gathered was used to write the “Wayne State Tolerance Curve,” still used to this day to calculate the amount of force required to cause head injuries in a car crash. […]

These days, only a couple of cadavers a year are used in testing at Wayne State, but they are still needed to perfect the next generation of crash test dummy. A lot more industry-wide effort is now put into preventing crashes in the first place—think automatic braking and lane change warning lights—rather than keeping car occupants safe. But the need for human bodies still occasionally arises.