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Eryn Reyes LeongMay 13, 2024
(iStock)

​This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.

“How would you feel about Daddy and me turning into ghostbots?”

I asked this peculiar question to my two children after reading about “grief tech,” the latest wonder child of artificial intelligence that allows the living to remain digitally connected to the dead through “ghostbots.” I explained to our children that they could feed our texts and emails to an A.I. platform that would create chatbots that mimic our language and tone and could respond to them through text after our death. Although the idea of death made them shudder, their response was immediate and firm: “We don’t want an A.I. mommy and daddy. It wouldn’t be real.”

Like our children, I have had a visceral response to the burgeoning realm of grief tech. As an attorney and a graduate student of theology, I could not help but envisage the intersections of law, theology and ethics. And as a Catholic woman who has experienced profound loss and grief in four consecutive miscarriages, these glaring intersections were heightened within my body. On a cerebral and bodily level, I found myself grappling with what personhood means in relation to grief tech.

With the creation of A.I., anthropomorphized chatbots are one critical example of how the rapidly advancing technology is testing the limits of the human condition. At this critical juncture, it is important for us, as people of faith and goodwill, to probe A.I.’s potential to divorce us from our humanity, with grief tech raising significant issues that bear on what it means to be human, specifically implicating our embodiment, relationality, finitude and death. Not only does grief tech try to divorce the human body from any concept of personhood, but grief tech’s endeavor to immortalize A.I. creations of the deceased stands in opposition to the Christian understanding of death.

Technology does not simply advance without the sanctioning of human beings. While human existence is vulnerable to grief and death, we must affirm the body as intrinsic to our humanity and to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, through which we enter into relationship with God, ourselves and one another. Our theological tradition—and specifically the work of Karl Rahner and Tina Beattie—can help us reflect on these imperatives and how they play out in the future.

The specter of grief tech

A.I. has emerged within the last two years as a formidable instrument of communication and relationship in various arenas. Large language models (L.L.M.s), a particular form of generative A.I., have facilitated this transition, with L.L.M.s that have been trained using volumes of data acquiring the extraordinary capability to mimic human beings through language. L.L.M.s are not sentient, but their neural networks enable them to generate lifelike responses that can feel real to actual human beings.

One nascent industry that has capitalized on L.L.M.s is grief tech. “Death is a lucrative business,” wrote Mihika Agarwal in Vox late last year, and grief tech seeks to console the living through apps and programs that “re-create the essence of the deceased.” As intimated by the question to my two children, ghostbots are a distinct version of grief tech. Through the power of A.I., we can build ghostbots out of the dead using the data—texts, emails, voice conversations, etc.—of our deceased loved ones. Once L.L.M.s are fed this data, companies like Open A.I., Séance A.I. and You, Only Virtual can generate ghostbots that immortalize the deceased through text-based chat. Although ghostbots cannot think, feel or have bodily form, their words offer a semblance of humanity by imitating the language of our dearly departed.

Although grief tech is still in its initial phase, it has already transformed the way we grieve. At the touch of an app, we can quickly comfort ourselves by interacting with ghostbots, short-circuiting the traditional way of grieving. We can easily download a relationship rather than accept our reality and sit with our loss and pain. Death loses its sense of finality, emboldening us to maintain relationships even beyond the grave. The dead may be physically gone, but they can now “‘live’ on our everyday devices,” wrote Aimee Pearcy in The Guardian last year, buried “in our pockets—where they wait patiently to be conjured into life with the swipe of a finger.”

The concreteness of human existence

Ghostbots may bring comfort and closure to the living, but grief tech raises serious issues. At the outset, there is the risk that users will become emotionally or psychologically dependent on ghostbots due, in part, to their instant accessibility and our ability to imbue them with familiarity and meaning. Ghostbots may feel real to us, but they cannot supplant healthy, concrete relationships with other human beings.

Entangled with this psychological risk are ethical and legal concerns. While some companies tout “Do Not Bot Me” clauses and “Digital Do Not Reanimate” orders to prohibit individuals from turning others into ghostbots without their permission, not all grief tech apps and programs require the deceased’s consent before they die. Further, even with these possible legal protections, there remains the issue of enforcement, exacerbated by the fact that we are constantly exchanging photos, texts and emails daily. We retain the data of others on our digital devices, and no federal law prevents us from building bots out of the dead or the living.

Our legal system’s present inability to protect the humanity of the deceased accentuates the final ethical concern of instrumentalization. Through generative A.I., we now have the capacity to reduce our deceased loved ones to digital instruments for maintaining relationship. With their data at our disposal, we can distill their human “essence” and contain it in eternal ghostbots that respond to us 24/7. Whether the app or program is free or not, grief tech companies are all too willing to monetize the dead as a service to help grieving individuals. Our dearly departed are resurrected as a technological means of support, one that can comfort us while avoiding the realities of the human body and death.

However, rather than being swept up by A.I.’s wave of “inevitability” as the only future awaiting us, people of faith can demand that we not blithely surrender our humanity to technology. We must get to the heart of the matter and articulate a philosophical and theological anthropology that respects the concreteness and finality of human existence if we are to challenge grief tech’s subterfuge of artificial intimacy as authentic relationship.

What does it mean to be human?

The Christian Scriptures reveal the body as constitutive of the human person. In the Book of Genesis, we are told humans are created in the imago Dei, the image and likeness of God (1:27). Our inviolable dignity is intrinsic to our bodies, which radiate our imago Dei and particular uniqueness as individuals. There is no Cartesian separation or Manichean division of our being. To paraphrase the theologian Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, we are our bodies, and the human body is good.

In the Gospels, “the flesh in its dignity” is affirmed and glorified in Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Son of God. As Moltmann-Wendel notes, the life of Jesus is about “God’s becoming body.” Jesus enters our world through the body of Mary, “begotten rather than fabricated,” and his words and actions touch “human beings in their totality, in their bodies.” According to Moltmann-Wendel, we see the totality of human beings most vividly in Jesus’ encounter with the woman who bled for 12 unrelenting years (Mk 5:25-34). After she touches his clothes, grasping Jesus in his bodily nature, the healing between them is body to body. She is immediately filled with his power and made whole; and he, though experiencing a flowing out of his power, remains whole (v. 29-30). Through the woman and Jesus, we discover how, as Motlmann-Wendel claims, “God encounters us in the human body,” inviting us into communion with him.

In a similar way, the Catholic theologian Margaret A. Farley, R.S.M., illuminates our concrete reality as human beings through her formulation of a sexual ethics that is germane to all human relationships. In Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, she offers a vision of the human person as an “embodied spirit” or “inspirited body” whom God invites to a destiny of relationship and wholeness.

Crucial to Farley’s vision are two obligating features of personhood: autonomy and relationality. In our autonomy, we can decide our own destiny, and in our relationships, we recognize the intrinsic value of others and our dependency upon them. Consequently, autonomy and relationality “ground an obligation to respect persons as ends in themselves and forbid, therefore, the use of persons as mere means” (emphasis in the original). When we instrumentalize others, we violate their autonomy and foreclose the possibility of authentic relationship. A “just love,” then, is true and good insofar as it affirms and respects the concrete reality of the beloved. It proclaims, in word and deed, that “I want you to be, and to be full and firm in being.”

In contrast to the anthropologies of Moltmann-Wendel and Farley, grief tech abolishes the human body. When we encounter one another as persons, we do not meet as diaphanous spirits but as embodied spirits, inspirited bodies, radiating the imago Dei. Each person is an “incarnate singularity,” to use the language of Roberto Dell’Oro in his 2022 article in the Journal of Moral Theology, “Can a Robot Be a Person?” Each person is unique and possesses an unrepeatable history; our body is inseparable from our destiny; and despite death, we do not lose our humanity.

However, through the power of A.I., grief tech has ruptured what it means to be human. Death’s finality presents grief tech with the lucrative opportunity to discard the body and profit from our loss and pain. Through ghostbots, companies offer grieving individuals the promise of eternal relationship with the dead. This promise is destructive and deceptive, divorcing our deceased loved ones from their bodies and extracting an “essence” from their data that fails to capture and affirm the totality of their human existence.

Ghostbots can neither experience nor embody what the deceased loved, what they valued and what they lived for. Instead, the deceased are reduced to a “stable static entity,” to use Agarwal’s words. This “stable static entity” is the antithesis of the complex, dynamic person who is loved by God and birthed into the world. They are essentialized and homogenized. By dispensing with the human body, the deceased can now be objectified as digital instruments for relationship.

The relationship that grief tech offers is an artificial intimacy that can never replicate the dynamics of human relationship. A.I. has no relationship with itself and must be programmed to create what human beings intend. In order to generate ghostbots then, we must feed L.L.M.s the data of the deceased, specifically their words that we want to hear. We must create the A.I. image of the deceased that we want, with or without their consent. Thus, what emerges from this interaction is not a two-sided, dynamic relationship between two distinct persons but a one-sided, static relationship with ourselves vis-à-vis a ghostbot.

This is a relationship that we imbue with meaning by using the dead as a means to comfort and console us. It is not just love.

Ultimately, grief tech’s flight from the body creates an illusion. When we fail to respect the body, we fail to respect persons as ends in themselves. When we fail to see the body, we fail to see God.

Karl Rahner, Tina Beattie and life through death

Even in death, the human body remains a key element in one’s own history. The flesh, created in the image and likeness of God, is still destined for God and summoned to glory by God. We cannot deny the vulnerability and finality of the human condition, but we must also recognize how life emerges by way of death in the body story of Jesus. In the cross, our bodies hold the promise of redemption through Jesus, the “first born from the dead” (Col 1:19). The theologians Tina Beattie and Karl Rahner can help parse this crucial notion in Christian theology.

Unlike the founder of You, Only Virtual, who wishes to end goodbyes and the human emotion of grief, the theologian Tina Beattie invites us to “befrien[d] death” through the mystery of the Incarnation. Although death is certain for each one of us, it is also a mystery exempt from human control. We tend to perceive it as “a mortal enemy,” a specter lurking in the shadows until we are forced to confront its undeniable reality.

Beattie recognizes our fear but points to the hope embodied in Christian anthropology, which offers a paradoxical view of death as a rebirth and a beginning: “The death of Christ tells us that God, like us, is vulnerable to love’s wounding and sorrow, but the resurrection of Christ whispers of a God whose dying is fecundity,” she writes in her book New Catholic Feminism: Theology and Theory.

Karl Rahner develops this theme of life through death in his book, On the Theology of Death. He emphasizes how death is the universal event that strikes us in our totality as human persons, but cautions that we should not regard death as a pointless suffering nor as a phantom waiting to strike. Although death remains a great mystery, faith illuminates its truth in the death of Jesus Christ. Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, “became consubstantial with us” and “died our death.”

According to Rahner, the real miracle of Christ’s death is that death was transformed into life, with the “flesh of sin” transformed into the “flesh of grace.” Death is a consequence of sin, and only in Christ’s death could death usher in God’s arrival in the final moment of our life when we feel most abandoned by God. In that moment, sin’s power reaches its apex but God’s grace overpowers sin.

Consequently, death becomes “the highest act of believing, hoping, and loving,” a “faith in darkness, hope against hope, and love of God who only appears as Lord and as inexorable justice.” Through Jesus’ death, God’s grace becomes ours. Thus, Rahner invites us to “hearken to the gospel of death, which is life.” Although the natural order of life ends in death, he challenges the dominant view of death as merely a natural process divorced from our spiritual, supernatural existence of grace.

Contrary to Martin Heidegger’s notion that human beings are “being-towards-death,” moving in life toward death and shaped by its reality, Rahner believes we are being-towards-glory. From the very beginning of our life, we are not oriented toward death but toward the glory of God, and death is not the end of our existence but the beginning of eternity with God. This involves the affirmation and fulfillment of the human person through a glorifying change in which the body remains whole. In the glorious grace of Christ’s death, we will not perish at death but will be transformed in the resurrection of the body.

In contrast to the Christian anthropology of death presented by Beattie and Rahner, grief tech exploits our fear by offering a semblance of human control over death. This control is illusory and, to quote Rahner, only “degrades [our] anxiety before death to a mere expression of self-preservation.” We end up trying to extend the finite limits of our own lives by controlling our loved ones in death. Grief tech cannot alleviate our fear of death, but only pushes us to eternalize the essentialization of human persons through ghostbots. Such an attempt perpetuates an artificial intimacy that can never replicate authentic relationship. Emboldened by A.I. and without the constraints of the law, we can resurrect the dead in our own image and, as a result, the dead cannot rest in peace.

A.I.’s attempt to control or circumvent death diminishes the humanity of the deceased. Instead of offering immortality, grief tech offers perpetual mortality that can neither capture the totality of our deceased loved ones as human persons nor comprehend the ultimate glory of the body or eternity with God. The proponents of grief tech are unable to imagine how death could lead to wondrous new life and new relationship with God and one another.

Life after ghostbots

We are our bodies, and our bodies are inextricably tied to our relationship with God, ourselves and one another. We are not data or digital instruments to be used and manipulated, in life or in death. Furthermore, we must not abandon the human body to try to conquer death. Though our life in the world will eventually cease, death is not the end of who we are. We, as human persons, are destined for God, in our beginning and in our end. The human body is a promise for glory, and Jesus Christ proclaims who we are in his life, death and resurrection.

Despite grief tech’s promise to console us through eternal ghostbots, we cannot surrender our humanity for an artificial intimacy divorced from concrete reality. With the rapid advancement of generative A.I., what is at stake is us. We are unique persons created and loved by God whose totality cannot be distilled by technology. Ghostbots are a deformation of the human person, and we must draw the line between the real and the virtual, the authentic and the counterfeit.

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