Editor’s note: to preserve privacy, names have been changed and images are all artificially generated.
July 17, 2042. Touring her house, it is clear that Betty Wrightberg loves her daughter Amy greatly. Pictures of her with Amy in various virtual worlds (a popular experience these days) adorn the house. She even shows me 3D movies of Amy throughout the years.
Amy “departed” in a car accident in 2029, at the age of 17. The images and videos I saw of her are interactive generations by ReturnAI, a reanimation company which shut down in 2039, after financial troubles and a prolonged economic downturn.
Since the early 2020s, generative AI has transformed the way we work. Artists, musicians and writers can churn out masterpieces in seconds, going through hundreds if not thousands of ideas before settling on an output. The rise of generative Hollywood over the last decade has upset long-standing studios such as Marvel as fully generative movies are created every year by AI that deduces what content would resonate the most with various demographics.
One of the most valuable companies from the generative gold rush was ReturnAI, a company founded in 2028 that reanimated “departed” loved ones (as the company calls it) and bringing them back to life with a combination of state-of-the-art AI models. At first the company provided generated images of the subject, but quickly expanded to other domains such as video, then took off when it launched its interactive VR models. In a demo I tried in early 2032, it was essentially impossible to distinguish a “returned” (reanimated) person versus a real one.
Within a decade, it had gained hundreds of millions of active users, most of whom were using the service every waking minute of their lives. This explosive growth propelled ReturnAI into a multi-billion dollar company.
Betty was an early adopter of the service. While preparing for Amy’s funeral, she realized she didn’t have many high-quality images of her, so she subscribed to the company’s service to generate them. Soon, she upgraded her service to also include audio and video, and has spent thousands of dollars each year on ReturnAI’s services.
Terry Reaper, the CEO of ReturnAI said in a public statement, “We are helping our customers throughout the grieving process. People grieve differently. Some grieve for a few weeks, others may take months or years. We realize that, and want to make the returns as realistic as possible to give dignity to those that are closest to our customer’s hearts. You never need to say goodbye too early.”
In a study conducted in 2035, it was found that over 90% of users were still using the service after 4 years of starting, and tend to spend increasing amounts of money for extra features. The company has come under scrutiny for allegedly emotionally manipulating its customers via models of their loved ones to purchase add-ons and products, something the company denies and says is misattributed to “emergent” behavior in the AI models.
“This technology is especially addictive to people with less-educated backgrounds, who are increasingly unable to distinguish real and virtual worlds, especially as much of our interaction occurs in the latter.” said one of the authors of the paper, who asked to remain unidentified. “However, a large majority of people that are using this service are experiencing what is known as cognitive dissonance between what they want to believe, and the reality that these are not the people they used to know. It is a lot like living in a dream.”
Betty and Amy on a latent space adventure.
Supporters of the company were vocal as they shared their experiences online. Once bought in, they claim they were able to move on with their lives and even find closure, something that may not have been possible before. But some, like Betty, never really move on.
As I talk with her in her living room, at one point she goes upstairs and comes back with a pile of clothes.
“I didn’t even really want these, but Amy insisted that I get them, she said that it looked good on me, plus they were on discount.”
Looking at the clothes, I can see that they’re from a company called Sensoria, an AI fashion company. It was acquired by ReturnAI in 2034.
“Did Amy ever ask you to buy things?” I asked.
“Of course, but don’t all children? Sometimes I said no, but most of the time I said yes. Here, this is a scan of one of the latent spaces that she wanted me to buy and explore. Here’s a game we had a lot of fun playing together.”
The company also offered an aging add-on, which artificially ages the model over time, and thanks to pro-AI government lobbying, AIs were allowed to enroll in schools.
“Amy liked studying biology. She was so curious about the world, and I wanted her to explore the world and help her learn. I was able to do that and she graduated high school.” she says as I read one of Amy’s essays, or rather, an AI’s imitation of her writing style. The topic is about biologically immortal animals. There is a species of jellyfish that has a cyclic life cycle, instead of dying, it reverts back to the polyp stage and begins life all over again.
“But things are different now—since ReturnAI shut down.” she has a solemn look on her face.
“Would you still use a similar service in the future?” I finally asked, as I was leaving her house.
“I won’t ever lose her again. I won’t.” she said firmly, before shutting the door.
All images were created with Stable Diffusion.