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Speaking with the Dead

What was it like in your great-great-grandmother’s childhood home? What did her father do? And more importantly, was he kind?

People will soon be able to ask intimate questions to long-deceased relatives, thanks to tech startup Storyfile. The company collects poignant memories to preserve original narratives throughout history.

Artificial Intelligence is used to retrieve answers that could apply to questions asked. Content is not changed or altered in any way – so that everything from body language to mannerisms is true to form.

Some clear purposes are to connect people with deceased family members (one employee’s mother answered questions at her own wake), and to offer us a glimpse into strangers’ lives through story. For example, there is a gallery where you can ask questions of influential figures – actors, astronauts, and holocaust survivors, among many others.

Possibilities for this technology seem endless. As one of our Speak Away students recently said, “it’s like a Human Encyclopedia.” And that couldn’t be more true. Imagine if those dusty Encyclopedias of our youth were interactive – if we could ask George Washington about that frigid night he crossed the Delaware River to attack the Brits. Or if we could see Columbus’s reaction when asked about his treatment of South American settlers: “Say, Chris, didn’t you cut off a man’s nose and ears and sell him into slavery for stealing a bag of corn?” – “Ahem, well, so here’s the thing about that...”

Then again, perhaps this project won’t work at all. In 100 years, we may be talking in such restrictive jargon that we’ve lost touch with our ancestors. Sound crazy? Imagine asking your grandmother if her chakras were aligned. Or grilling your grandfather about dating in your thirties. Hell, try asking my father if he’s ever experienced anxiety – you’ll get a wide-eyed stare, as if you just started speaking Mandarin.

The words we use and the topics we focus on are constantly morphed. Preserving these snapshots could be one of the most useful applications sociology has ever known… Or it’s just another futile attempt at immortality – a fad that will blow over and mean nothing, like the family videos sitting in your attic.

I’d like to think it’s something more. An insight into others’ lives. A time to sit and listen, without judgment or competition. A chance to enrich ourselves without the constant call to impress or convince. After all, when we’re gone, who will we have to impress?

And you? Given the chance, who would you speak with today? Who could you learn the most from?

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