Microsoft Patent: Chatbots Made From The Online Habits Of Dead People

from the digital-zombies dept

Every once in a while, you come across some story about chatbots. These tend to range from fun stories about how someone makes a chatbot to make some interaction more efficient to some large company making a chatbot that turns out to be horrifically racist thanks to its interactions with the general public. Good times all around, in other words.

But a recent patent granted to Microsoft is a whole different thing.

The patent describes creating a bot based on the “images, voice data, social media posts, electronic messages”, and more personal information.

“The specific person [who the chat bot represents] may correspond to a past or present entity (or a version thereof), such as a friend, a relative, an acquaintance, a celebrity, a fictional character, a historical figure, a random entity etc”, it goes on to say.

“The specific person may also correspond to oneself (e.g., the user creating/training the chat bot,” Microsoft also describes – implying that living users could train a digital replacement in the event of their death.

I'll go ahead and wait while you finish shivering in revulsion. Done? Cool, because we aren't done yet. The patent also lays out how the use of a deceased person's image could be used to create a 3D model of the dearly departed, allowing for the construction of not just a "chatbot", but one that uses images of a person to make the interaction with others more... personable. And, well, if all of this sounds like something that would have appeared in famed creepy-show Black Mirror, good instincts, because it already did.

The idea that you would be able, in the future, to speak to a simulation of someone who has passed on is not new. It is famously the plot of the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back”, where a young woman uses a service to scrape data from her deceased partner to create a chatbot – and eventually a robot.

Most will point out that Black Mirror episodes tend to serve as warnings, not how-tos. But let's all take a breath here. The concept of being able to build some simulacrum for long lost family members or historical figures is no doubt interesting. And, assuming everyone involved understands the limitations for what this technology actually can do and is, the tech itself isn't particularly harmful.

But what we do need to pay very close attention to are the implications for privacy and transparency should anyone seek to opt into this. Otherwise, you can imagine a world where grandma, having died 2 years ago, suddenly reaches out to you on the internet and wants a quick chat. And that, I feel confident, nobody wants.

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Filed Under: chatbots, dead people, deceased
Companies: microsoft


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Jan 2021 @ 8:28pm

    Well shit, looks like John Edward needs to file a lawsuit for copyright infringement.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Boba Fat (profile), 29 Jan 2021 @ 8:36pm

    prior art

    Obviously the patent examiner had never read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

    "Yes, an electronic brain," said Frankie, "a simple one would suffice."

    "A simple one!" wailed Aurthur.

    "Yeah," said Zaphod with a sudden evil grin, "you'd just have to program it to say What? and I don't understand and Where's the tea? Who'd know the difference?"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    sumgai (profile), 29 Jan 2021 @ 11:14pm

    So, Microsoft has taken out a patent on how to implement the movie S1m0ne (2002), eh? That may not be the first movie to use that plotline, but it was certainly the most believable one I've seen. And no, Max Headroom (1985) doesn't qualify - that was an actual actor in dress-up, with some mild (by today's standards) computer enhancements.

    My real fear about this is a massive escalation of that old scheme of putting an enemy on all the mailing lists the perpetrator can find; magazine subscriptions, various schools like "Learn To Draw", get-rich-quick schemes, etc. In this day and age, that's all done via the internet, and with a plausible (and seemingly verifiable) identity, this kind of thing will cause a lot of tears before it gets handled.

    In my day, about the most harmful thing I could do was to call someone on the telephone (remember those?!) and ask them if their refrigerator was running. Ah, but Bob Dylan did say it best: "The times they are a-changin'".

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Mr Canoehead (profile), 30 Jan 2021 @ 1:33am

      Re: Max Headroom

      I'm not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work, there, Lou. We're talking plot lines, not implementation. And Episode 8 of Max Headroom (second episode of season 2) had that exact plot: chatbots made from dead people's personalities. And in an uncanny parallel to reality, they were crap.
      In fact, the episode is a better match to the story than S1m0ne, because it's about simulating behaviour, not appearance.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        sumgai (profile), 30 Jan 2021 @ 9:22am

        Re: Re: Max Headroom

        MC,

        As I noted, S1m0ne wasn't the first movie, and I didn't even speak to television materials, I stated only that S. was the best by far, to that point in time. And my researches were conducted via Wikipedia, reference.com, etc. - that's because my memory looks more like a sieve than a trap.

        I do however take exception to the point of "simulating behavior and not appearance". Recall that an AI "grew up" and took control from its creator, and the continued appearance of a simulcrum from that point forward was based exactly on what had been "posted" before the AI took over - "posted" being the equivalent of what the creator had said while in the persona of S1m0ne. That's exactly what MS is purporting to do, snatch up the social media postings of Person X, and use them to create a believable imitation "Person X", indistinguishable from the real thing.

        Indeed, we've actually seen many incarnations of believable AI, but so far all of them have been exposed in due time. I think that MS truly believes they've overcome that hurdle, and will be "testing" it out on the rest of the online populace.... we'll see how that turns out, eh?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    JoeCool (profile), 30 Jan 2021 @ 1:36am

    How clever

    Seems the muggles finally figured out how to make something like our magical portraits. Such clever little beasts!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Jan 2021 @ 3:39am

    Cross with a current scam to get AI that scans for people (literally) just deceased, generates the simalcrum and then contacts friends that may not yet be aware with a very realistic representation asking for a temporary loan to solve an urgent problem?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Jan 2021 @ 6:04am

    Anonymous Cowardbot v7.22

    Eventually someone is going to realize that you don't have to be dead for someone to make a chatbot of your tweets. And at some point, the chatbot will be more believable that you are.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      TRX, 31 Jan 2021 @ 12:46pm

      Re: Anonymous Cowardbot v7.22

      It wouldn't be hard. Most of my email correspondence fails the Turing test. At least, I'm pretty sure there's not a bot on the other end...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 1 Feb 2021 @ 12:06am

      Re: Anonymous Cowardbot v7.22

      I am pretty sure you could just use a GPT-3 chat bot trained on someone's social media and get similar results. If a chatbot is more believeable that says more about you than it really.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DNY (profile), 30 Jan 2021 @ 6:08am

    Prior art?

    A patent on this? The submission better have a lot of detail on exactly how it is to be done, otherwise wouldn't the Black Mirror episode suffice as an example of prior art to invalidate the patent? I seem to recall the tablets on Star Trek: the Next Generation being successfully invoked as prior art against a design element patent (rectangular with rounded corners) for tablet devices in the real world.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Jan 2021 @ 6:30am

    "The patent describes creating a bot based on the “images, voice data, social media posts, electronic messages”, and more personal information."

    I'm sure they would acquire adequate licensing of said intellectual property - not.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Mel, 30 Jan 2021 @ 6:32am

    Gregory is right...

    "Gregory is right. We need to vote for Kang."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Jan 2021 @ 7:45am

    So, not so much "20 minutes"......

    ....but rather, checks notes 34 years into the future, we're officially living in that episode of Max Headroom's second season.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 Jan 2021 @ 7:50am

      Re: So, not so much "20 minutes"......

      I'd say at least it's not a creepy church doing this to pretend to be giving people's relatives eternal life, but I can't really think of a lens through which we can see it as any better.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 30 Jan 2021 @ 9:33am

        Re: Re: So, not so much "20 minutes"......

        [A]t least it's not a creepy church doing this to pretend to be giving people's relatives eternal life…

        An Elizabeth Holmes-type leader heads a cult-like cryonics-preservation startup into a miraculous future where super-cooling and super-conductivity cross over from the twilight-zone of superstition into super-science transcending faith.

        “The brain waves may be frozen. But they still react. The magnetic coupler inputs your typed words so that the client (we do prefer to think of them as our clients — they're not stiffs) can react to them directly in the brain's language center. Then the magnetic pickup senses the reaction. The computer-controlled translator returns the client's words to your screen.”

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Bloof (profile), 30 Jan 2021 @ 9:10am

    Jesus H. Christ that's a glimpse into a bleak future. They're working out how to make money from the dead, so people can keep on being part of the machine long after their demise.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 Jan 2021 @ 9:17am

      Re:

      Odd you should mention "making money from the dead" and "Jesus Christ" in the same sentence.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      sumgai (profile), 30 Jan 2021 @ 9:30am

      Re:

      .... earn money from the dead

      Not odd at all. But the real sticking point is this: who's gonna be the owner of this "fake but believable" persona?

      • Will it be the person/company who put the pieces together, even if it's not Person X?
      • Will it be Person X"s estate?
      • And most importantly, if money is being made by anyone, who will the IRS go after for the tax burden??

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 1 Feb 2021 @ 12:04am

      Re:

      Calm down. Gravediggers, coffin makers, and stonr carvers make money from tbe dead. This is just a tasteless and ill conceived version of feeding in all seven Harry Potter books to a predictive keyboard and getting out "Harry Potter and the Portrait of what Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash". Nothing more than a crass parlor trick.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    KeillRandor (profile), 30 Jan 2021 @ 10:14am

    Hmmm...

    I speak dead people...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Christopher (profile), 30 Jan 2021 @ 1:25pm

    Mona Lisa Overdrive, 1988

    Finn.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Jan 2021 @ 2:08pm

    What the hell is patentable here?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Jan 2021 @ 2:22pm

    The patent

    So... reading over the patent you can see that Microsoft did a wonderful job describing all the data points they expect to use and even give some lip service to how that data could be used to simulate a person...
    Then it goes into pain staking detail for the 'on a computer' part... which is the same sort of thing you'd expect in a BS patent patent like this... most of it feel like a description of pretty much any online service (but done in a boorish, repetitive manner).
    It's not really even clever about the whole, "we have an idea and we're doing stuff on a computer, so patent"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 Jan 2021 @ 2:37pm

      Re: The patent

      pain staking

      You got that right.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 1 Feb 2021 @ 6:08pm

      At least the patent is about dead people!

      Privacy laws and dead people as plaintiffs might give them some legal cover to do this. Horrific as it is.


      One way Microsoft could make it worse would be to given us all chat-bots based on our '15 year old MSN-Messanger selves'

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Mark Wing, 31 Jan 2021 @ 3:59am

    I'm working on the technology to be able to sue Microsoft posthumously.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Jan 2021 @ 11:28am

    Otherwise, you can imagine a world where grandma, having died 2 years ago, suddenly reaches out to you on the internet and wants a quick chat. And that, I feel confident, nobody wants.

    Because she needs your help to fix this weird problem with her printer, and it will just take a minute dear...?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Mike Gale (profile), 31 Jan 2021 @ 2:46pm

    We kinda have this already

    I see quite a lot of politicians.

    Many of of them are meat robots that do this already. They're programmed by the teleprompter, voice and speech coach, chief of staff, etc.

    Will they challenge the patent?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    n00bdragon (profile), 1 Feb 2021 @ 6:55am

    Am I the only one less concerned about the fact that recreating the experience of interacting with dead people will be a thing and more concerned with the idea that there now exists a PATENT, an ownable piece of intellectual property, that gives something (someone?) the right to act like a particular human being? I can't wait for the lawsuits Microsoft can file against anyone too accurately emulating a particular personality. Can you imagine the sheer insanity of OWNING a personality?

    We've already seen the legal madness over sportsball players and having their tattoos emulated in video games. When John Madden dies and Madden NFL 2K25 comes out featuring his soundalike voice mark my words: it's happening and there will be lawsuits.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Darkness Of Course (profile), 1 Feb 2021 @ 2:56pm

    What about swearing?

    I use fuck in many circumstances. Less overall since I retired as I am not in the mire of day-to-day corporate stupidity. But, this is the web so the occasional stupidity trickles down, like dog urine down your leg. Like this patent.

    Back to fuck. Will they edit out the fuck? Or edit the fuck out of the message? Because nobody would think it was me without a fuck or more. In particular if it reacted to the news, because things are fucking fucked no matter what part of the world you're living in.

    The only thing worse than corps who are morally blind is governments who ignore pandemics, which includes politicians. The fucks.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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