Home Tech Chinese mourners turn to AI to remember and ‘revive’ loved ones

Chinese mourners turn to AI to remember and ‘revive’ loved ones

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Chinese mourners turn to AI to remember and ‘revive’ loved ones

aAs millions of people across China travel to the graves of their ancestors to pay their respects for the annual grave-sweeping festival, a new way to commemorate and revive their beloved relatives is being born.

For as little as 20 yuan ($2.20), Chinese Internet users can create a moving digital avatar of their loved one, according to some services advertised online. So this year, on the occasion of Thursday’s grave-sweeping festival, innovative mourners are turning to artificial intelligence to communicate with the deceased.

At the more advanced end of the spectrum, Taiwanese singer Bao Xiaobai used AI to “resurrect” his 22-year-old daughter, who died in 2022. Despite only having an audio recording of her speaking three sentences of English, Bao reportedly spent more than a year experimenting with AI technology before succeeding in creating something a video of his daughter singing happy birthday to her mother, which he published in January.

“People around me think I have gone crazy,” Bao said in an interview with Chinese media. But added: “I want to hear her voice again.”

The interest in digital clones of the deceased comes as China’s AI industry continues to expand into human-like avatars. According to one estimate, the market size for “digital people” was worth 12 billion yuan in 2022, and is expected to quadruple by 2025. Part of the reason Chinese tech companies are adept at creating digital humans is that the country’s vast army of livestreamers — who generated an estimated 5 trillion yuan in revenue last year — are increasingly turning to AI to create clones of themselves to push products 24/7.

People scatter flower petals into a river at a Beijing cemetery ahead of this week’s grave-sweeping festival. Photo: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

Last month, SenseTime, one of China’s leading AI companies, showcased its skills in this area with a speech at the company’s annual general meeting by company founder Tang Xiao’ou. “Hello everyone, we’ll meet again,” Tang told the employees. “Last year was tough for everyone, but I believe that tough things will pass eventually.”

Tang’s 2023 was particularly difficult, as he died on December 15 at the age of 55. His speech was delivered by a digital clone, who had been trained by SenseTime’s engineers using a large language model machine learning program trained on video and audio clips from Tang.

The grave sweeping festival offers a special opportunity for this type of technology. One software developer said on Weibo that this year he had already helped more than 600 families achieve ‘reunification’ with their loved ones.

But it’s not just the bereaved who are using AI to bring their loved ones back to life. Social media users recently used old footage of singer Qiao Renliang, who died in 2016, to create new content starring him. In one video, Qiao’s AI clone says, “Actually, I never really left.” But the parents of Qiao, who committed suicide, are furious. His father was quoted in Chinese media as saying the video “exposed scars” and was taken without the family’s consent.

Some lawyers in China argue that such content should be banned if it causes “mental pain” to the relatives of the deceased. But as mourners gather for the grave-sweeping festival, China’s digital residents are likely to experiment with digital afterlife faster than living policymakers can regulate them.

Additional research by Chi Hui Lin

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