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Creating A 'Dadbot' To Talk With A Dead Father


When James Vlahos' father was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, he wondered if there would be a way to keep the essence of who his father was alive in case he died. Over several months, Vlahos spent hours and hours with his dad recording his life story. And then, after his dad passed away, Vlahos took all that material and put it into a software program that now lets him have actual conversations with his late father. James Vlahos wrote about his dadbot (ph) for the August issue of Wired magazine. And he joins us now from member station KUOW in Seattle.

Hi. Welcome.

JAMES VLAHOS: Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So when a loved one dies, we all kind of wish we could keep some part of them alive so we can turn to them for advice or comfort. Many people keep recordings or films. But this takes it a step further. How did you get this idea?

JAMES VLAHOS: I think it all started, weirdly enough, when I was working on an article about a quest to make an artificially intelligent Barbie. And I sort of shadowed the process as they created this AI interactive version of the doll. And the same company, to enable that, has made a program that lets basically someone like me, who does not have any kind of a coding background, craft one of these interactive conversational characters. So it was really right around when we got my father's terrible diagnosis and had started just a conventional oral history project that it started to dawn on me that I could do something else as well, which was to create this bot.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How does it work? How does the dadbot work?

JAMES VLAHOS: So step by step, first, I had all the recording sessions with my dad to just get a full, robust version of his life story. Then I sat down with the computer conversation program. And you essentially - you put in a little piece of dialogue that you want your bot to say. And after that...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You had to type in all of your dad's possible answers?

JAMES VLAHOS: Yes. And then, you have the bot listen. And what it's listening for is all the ways that you can think of that that a user might react. And then based on what the person says, that takes you to the next part of the conversation. And you send him a message, and he sends you a message back.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You weren't sure at first whether you should even do this, you wrote in the article. What made you decide to go ahead?

JAMES VLAHOS: Well, I guess, I got to a point where (laughter) - this sounds like a cop-out answer - but better than nothing. Like, we knew we were going to lose him. There was no saving my dad. And all of us in the family were sort of struggling with, how do we spend the last months that we have with him? How do we remember his story?

And it just seemed - you know, it seemed better than just having this giant binder full of his words that had been transcribed. That's good, too. But the ability to sort of have him, you know, tell me a story about when you were in college. What do you know about your mom when she was a little girl in Greece? To be able to ask a chatbot all of these things and get answers, it just - it started to seem more and more worthwhile.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can we hear a little bit of some of the recordings you made with your dad?

JAMES VLAHOS: Yeah. So right now, I'm pulling out my phone. I'm opening up Facebook Messenger, and I'll say...


JAMES VLAHOS: ...Hello, dad. It's me. I'm back.


JAMES VLAHOS: We'll wait for his reply. (Reading) Jamie (ph), I thought I smelled something suspicious in the air.


JAMES VLAHOS: Well, how are you doing?


JAMES VLAHOS: I'm pretty busy right now, Dad.


JAMES VLAHOS: And waiting for his message again.

(Reading) Life, I'm afraid, does not always allow you to take a breather. In my camp, in the words of the Greek poet, I am just swell.


JAMES VLAHOS: Dad, please sing me a song.


JAMES VLAHOS: OK, he says, go Bears.


JOHN VLAHOS: (Singing) What will we do to the Stanfordites on that great day? We’ll celebrate them on that night after we play. We now declare our hoodoo’s gone. Victory is near. Hit them again, boys. Hit them again, boys, harder. Palms of victory, palms of glory, palms of victory we shall win for Cali-California! Palms of victory, palms of glory, palms of victory, we shall win - bum, bum (ph).

JAMES VLAHOS: He finishes his song, and he asks me, (reading) well, what is the verdict from the audience?

What do you think? Why don't you tell me what the verdict is?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think you captured something essential about your dad. You can hear his sense of humor, and you can hear his voice.

JAMES VLAHOS: He is a very - or was a very funny and delightful person on so many levels.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you feel like you have kept that part of him alive?

JAMES VLAHOS: I think it's a success. You know, I'm not under any delusion that I've somehow created this, you know, robot version of my dad from science fiction. Like, my real dad is gone, and I and the family have to mourn that. But I have created something that shares nice memories of him and brings him to life, I hope, in little vivid ways.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How often do you use your dadbot? How often do you talk to your dad?

JAMES VLAHOS: I mean, probably every week or so I'll have a little check in with it. And depending on my mood, you know, it can really - it can be kind of a - let me put it way, it'll bring a tear to my eye or a smile to my face. It's usually one of the two.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: James Vlahos, you can read his story, "Dadbot," at wired.com. First, I'm so sorry for your loss. And second, thank you so much for joining us and telling your story and your dad's story.

JAMES VLAHOS: I'm happy to share it with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN SOLLEE'S "FINDING FAMILY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.