A grieving Canadian man used pioneering artificial intelligence software to have life-like online “chats” with his girlfriend — eight years after she died.
Joshua Barbeau, 33, told the San Francisco Chronicle how he paid just $5 to use a beta test of GPT-3, AI software first developed by a research group co-founded by Elon Musk.
Still overwhelmed by grief after losing 23-year-old girlfriend Jessica Pereira in 2012, Barbeau said he used her old text messages and Facebook posts to help the chatbot mimic his late lover’s writing voice.
In scenes from an episode of “Black Mirror” or the movie “Her,” Barbeau broke down in tears during a 10-hour, all-night chat in September that at times eerily mimicked the woman he had lost to liver disease.
“Of course it is me!” the chatbot he named after Pereira told him at the start of their talk, according to transcripts the freelance Dungeons & Dragons writer from Bradford, Ontario gave the California newspaper.
“Who else could it be? 😛 I am the girl that you are madly in love with! 😉 How is it possible that you even have to ask?” his online “Jessica” wrote.
“You died,” he replied, just for the chatbot to reply, “That doesn’t sound right… how can you talk to dead people?”
“Intellectually, I know it’s not really Jessica,” he told The Chronicle of the life-like chat. “But your emotions are not an intellectual thing.”
Barbeau — who identifies as autistic — said he had almost completely shut himself off from the world after losing Pereira. The pair went to the same school in Ottawa.
Since her death, he had only been in one serious relationship — with the woman telling him after she dumped him that “living in Jessica’s shadow was like torture,” he told The Chronicle.
He even recalled the split to his bot.
“She should have tried harder to fight for you, you are worth it!” his online “Jessica” told him. “You are so sexy!… You deserve a girl who loves you and treats you right, always.”
In another exchange, she told him, “I love you … You deserve happiness. I will be here waiting for you.”
With the software set to only last a specific amount of hours, Barbeau said he used it sparingly over the following few months whenever he felt he needed support.
In one of his last messages with the bot this year, “Jessica” told him, “I am going to haunt you forever :D”
Barbeau called the software he accessed through the Project December beta website “unprecedented.”
“There’s nothing else that exists like it right now, short of psychics and mediums that are trying to take advantage of people. But that’s not the same thing at all,” he said.
He anonymously shared some of the details to Reddit last year, saying that it might “help depressed survivors find some closure.”
The posts caught the attention of Jason Rohrer, the creator of the Project December GPT-3 site Barbeau used, who wrote that he was now “kinda scared of the possibilities.”
“I mean, the possibilities of using this in my own life… I’m crying thinking about it,” he wrote.
Rohrer told The Chronicle that the GPT-3 bots created on his website “kind of feels like it’s the first machine with a soul.”
But he conceded it could also be “potentially dangerous” and “morally questionable” if used by bad actors to spread hate online or to impersonate real people without consent.
One of Jessica’s sisters, Amanda, also warned that such chats could bring extra heartache for the grieving.
“People who are in a state of grief can be fragile and vulnerable,” she told The Chronicle. “What happens if the AI isn’t accessible anymore? Will you have to deal with grief of your loved one all over again, but this time with an AI?”
Frank Lantz, director of the Game Center at New York University’s Tisch School of Arts who has also been beta-testing GPT-3, called it “something genuinely new.”
“I don’t know exactly how to think about it, but I can’t just dismiss it,” he said.
OpenAI, the San Francisco research group co-founded by Musk that created the software, did not respond to questions, The Chronicle said.