I long to see my dead dad – but I'm unsure virtual reality's the answer

Yet if VR grief therapy is going to be helpful and not hurtful, it will need to be available under supervision, and not all the time

Holly Brockwell
Wednesday 12 February 2020 18:55
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Mother reunites with dead daughter in virtual reality

This week, a woman in South Korea was “reunited” with her dead seven-year-old daughter in virtual reality for a TV show. Unsurprisingly, the internet’s reaction was swift and strong, with many people condemning the idea as Black Mirror-esque.

But I can see why she did it.

When you’ve lost someone close to you – especially suddenly – it’s natural to think about what you’d say if you could just see them one more time. My dad took his life when I was five years old, and I’ve thought a million times about conversations I’d have loved to have with him. As a technologist, I’ve thought of ways tech could make this happen, such as by using photos and videos of him as training material for an AI.

Meeting my dad in virtual reality would, of course, not be the same as seeing him in the flesh (which isn’t possible – yet?). But technology has already advanced to the point that we can create very convincing “deepfakes”, and recreating someone’s presence in virtual reality isn’t much more advanced than that. Like it or not, reuniting with our dead loved ones is likely to become a commercially-available service in the next few years – and in the meantime, we need to prepare ourselves for the emotional implications.

There’ll be a lot of them. For instance, what if the dead person’s avatar isn’t quite right? What if it’s too cartoony, the voice is wrong, or it walks into a piece of furniture and glitches? How will the bereaved brain cope with something that looks like their loved one, but is ever so slightly off? Someone still grieving could easily enter a dangerous spiral from something as simple as a bug in the software.

Equally, those providing the simulation are unlikely to be doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. What if you’re in the middle of a painful conversation with your late family member, and the VR headset gets switched off because it’s someone else’s turn? What if, in order to afford a session, you have to put up with your dead child spouting advertising messages every fifteen minutes? What if a hacker gets into the system and makes your loved one say abhorrent things to you? Can any kind of therapy undo that kind of emotional damage?

Of course, heartbroken humans already have other ways to rediscover their dead. I’ve had countless dreams about seeing my dad again, and it could be argued that virtual reality is essentially the same, only with better graphics. Isn’t it only fair that people who don’t or can’t dream of their loved ones can connect with them another way?

Well, no. For starters, your dreams are likely to be hazy, pulled directly from your own memories. An AI trying to approximate your grandma from a limited database of video recordings might get it wrong, and overwrite your real memories in the process. Did she always sound slightly autotuned? Was she always so short with you?

That’s not to say the idea has no merit at all. I’ve had extensive therapy for my dad’s death, and some of the exercises involved things like talking to an empty chair that I imagined was him, or to a photo, or envisioning going back in time to revisit the scenes of happy memories. Some of those exercises were helpful, and enabled me to move a little further forward.

Perhaps hearing my dad say “I love you, I miss you, it wasn’t your fault” in his own voice would give the closure that imagine those words has never achieved. When a male radio producer read my dad’s suicide note aloud, it affected me completely differently, even though I’d read the words in my head a thousand times.

Still, if VR grief therapy is going to be helpful and not hurtful, it will need to be available under supervision, and not all the time. If there was a box in the corner of my living room with a version of my dad inside, I can’t say I wouldn’t be tempted to go and live in that fantasy and neglect my real life – and I’m relatively well-recovered. Someone bereaved last week might well waste away in a pixelated world where they and their lost loved one could be “together”.

As with everything tech, the difference that virtually reanimating the dead makes to the human world depends entirely on how it’s implemented. Meeting a version of your child controlled by a trained therapist as a way to help you to heal could be a gift, whereas meeting one controlled by Facebook as a way to keep you engaged with the platform could be a curse. I suspect there’ll be some of both, so it’s up to us what kinds of virtual worlds we create. Just make sure that before you enter, you’ve thought about what lies ahead.

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