Julie McDonald: Professor talks about using AI to re-create deceased loved ones


When a cardiologist diagnosed me with a heart blockage in early January and scheduled the procedure to fix it in early March, I had two months to consider my life and possible death. What did I need to accomplish before I died?

After dedicating my career to helping people preserve their life stories, I decided I needed to pull together our annual Christmas letters with photos and stories to provide my children — and someday possible grandchildren — with the family memories only Mom and Dad know. I scrambled to put it together but completed only 10 of our 32 years of marriage.

However, with thoughts of life and death and legacies swirling in my mind, I read with interest a Humanities Washington newsletter describing an upcoming presentation by Dr. Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad, a principal research scientist at KenSci Inc., a company focused on AI in healthcare, and affiliate assistant professor in the University of Washington Computer Science Department. The presentation’s title? “When Your Grandpa Is a Bot: AI, Death, and Digital Doppelgangers.”

Intrigued, I recruited my sister Sue McDonald, our family genealogist who lives in Lacey, and drove to Bothell, perhaps for the first time since completing my journalism internship at The Northshore Citizen four decades ago. It’s not a journey for the faint of heart, with nutty motorists darting between cars to change lanes and racing at more than 80 mph as if they’re in a video game. But we arrived at the Bothell Library Wednesday evening in time to hear Ahmad describe to about a dozen people the digital bot he created so his children could interact with their deceased grandpa.

When his father, Mushtaq Ahmad Mirza, died at almost 74 on Oct. 29, 2013, “the world as I knew it ended,” Ahmad said. He was the youngest sibling with older brothers who were married with children, and he had seen his father interact with his nieces and nephews as their beloved grandfather. He knew that his children, whenever he married and fathered them, would never have that chance — unless he intervened.

He grieved his father’s death, but after he married and held his first daughter in his arms, he knew he wanted her to know the father he had loved and admired. Ahmad, who lives in Bothell, gathered his father’s letters and text messages. He also had interviewed his father, who spoke Punjabi, so he translated those interviews and fed all the data into a computer program he created — his Grandpa bot. He tried several text-to-speech programs, but because his father’s native language wasn’t English, they didn’t work well. However, the technology exists for AI — artificial intelligence — to re-create the speech patterns of native English speakers, he said.

“Pretty much everybody these days is talking about artificial intelligence,” Ahmad said. “People are amazed by what it can do. And at the same time, it is also a subject which is very personal, very near and dear to me.”

It’s an inevitability that everyone will experience the deaths of loved ones. People preserve cherished memories through artifacts — letters, cards, photographs, and videos. Ahmad said his Grandpa bot is simply another “artifact,” albeit an interactive text-based program that allows his children to type in questions for their grandfather who answers as he would have done if still living, based on the data compiled in the bot.

“If you really think about it, most of us do not know what our great-great-great-grandparents look like because photography was invented just 200 years ago, and of course, it was not available to everybody,” he said. “And before that, paintings were only the purview of the rich.”

But after photography, mass literacy expanded, so people sent letters and emails and today use smartphones to capture aspects of people in photos and videos.

“Why would anybody want to simulate the deceased?” Ahmad asked. “Almost every person longs for a last chance. I wish I could have said that, or I wish this was possible or that was possible. And of course it’s not possible to bring back the dead, but maybe technology can provide us with not a chance but maybe half a chance or maybe even a quarter of a chance.

“The dear departed, they cannot come back but maybe we can still converse with them.”

Although it may seem like a radical idea, Ahmad said, it’s not much different than what humanity has done since time immemorial to commemorate the deceased through stories and later photos.

“So in my mind, having a simulation of a person, it’s not necessarily a radical break,” Ahmad said. “It’s just a different type of memory.”

He pointed out a 2013 episode of the British television series Black Mirror called “Be Right Back” featured a young widow who missed her husband so much she signed up for an interactive program based on his writings and videos and then bought a life-sized re-creation of him — although (spoiler alert) he wasn’t quite the same as the real thing so she kept him in the attic. A 2012 book by Seattle author Laurie Frankel, “Goodbye for Now,” envisions re-creating deceased loved ones for interactive conversations. Museums also have created AI-driven interactive programs that allow visitors to chat with Holocaust survivors and deceased veterans.

That’s what Ahmad did with his text-based Grandpa bot. Initially, his 2-year-old daughter asked a question, and he typed it into the bot for her. Grandpa would respond with an answer. Later, his daughters could type questions themselves and receive responses.

“Children are naturally curious, and they asked the most profound questions,” Ahmad said. “Children ask why questions and really get down to it.”

As young children, he said, his daughters considered many inanimate objects to be alive. They conversed during COVID with an aunt over a smartphone, but when they met her in person, his youngest was surprised because she thought her aunt lived in the phone. For a time, they also thought their grandfather lived in the computer. Later, they decided he lived in both the computer and in Heaven. Sometimes they’d ask the Grandpa bot to pass on a message to their grandfather in Heaven. He had to explain to his children why Grandpa couldn’t visit their classrooms.

“There’s no one on the other side,” Ahmad said. “It’s just very clever simple manipulation.”

He also pointed out that his bot, created initially in 2016 and updated through the years, is ancient by AI machine learning standards where a year is like a decade in other fields.

Today, people are trying to commercialize AI and the re-creation of deceased loved ones. I asked if he’d  thought about doing it as a business, but he suggested it would be better as a nonprofit.

Ahmad also addressed wrestling with philosophical questions of fidelity on a daily basis. He opted against adding information that his father wouldn’t know but did input answers that he and his father had discussed in conversations. He had to answer his daughters’ question: Is Grandpa bot real?

Explaining how the bot works and most likely responds as his father would have done in person had to be done at an age-appropriate level, he said, but his eldest daughter explained for a school project in first grade how generative AI can be creative but also makes mistakes.

Just as they once considered their stuffed teddy bear to be alive, Ahmad said, as they grew up they understood it wasn’t actually alive. “Just to be funny,” he said, “I’m the only person in the family who actually still treats it as a real person, and the kids get annoyed.”

When they ask questions Grandpa bot can’t answer, he’ll give one of several noncommittal responses, such as “Let me think about it” or “I haven’t really thought about it.”

Ahmad, who also has taught engineering and computer science at the University of Minnesota Computer Science Department, UM’s Center for Cognitive Science, and Istinye University and the Indian Institute of Technology–Kanpur, spoke about the future of AI in society.

Millions of people already use AI every day, whenever they ask Alexa or Siri to answer a question for them.

A 2019 study asked people in different countries if they would be comfortable leaving their children at a hospital in the care of an AI-powered nurse, like a robot.

In the United States, 43 percent would be comfortable with it, while in the United Kingdom, only 33 percent would. However, in China, 88 percent answered affirmatively and in India 83 percent. In Brazil, 63 percent would.

“Just look at the numbers from countries where the vast majority of people live,” Ahmad said, but added, “I would also caution you that you should not get carried away because AI has a history of overpromising and underdelivering.”

He’s also concerned about people growing addicted to communicating with bots of deceased loved ones rather than interacting with people in their lives.

“My biggest worry for the future is once these conversational agents are common, just as people get addicted to social media, people may get addicted to just talking to virtual agents, virtual bots. That would be detrimental, not interacting with people who are with you.”


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.