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Virtual Reminiscence: Exploring China’s Fascination with AI-Generated Avatars of Departed Loved Ones


In the midst of the digital age’s relentless march forward, a peculiar trend has emerged in China—one that blurs the boundaries between life and death, reality and simulation. The rise of AI-generated avatars of deceased loved ones has captivated the nation, offering a glimpse into a future where the departed can be brought back to life, albeit in digital form. This phenomenon, fuelled by advancements in artificial intelligence and rooted in centuries-old cultural traditions, raises profound questions about ethics, grief, and the nature of human connection in an increasingly digitized world.

At the forefront of this burgeoning industry is SenseTime, a leading AI company that recently made headlines with its ground breaking announcement: the launch of a service that allows individuals to create digital clones of their departed relatives. Tang Xiao’ou, the founder of SenseTime, introduced this service posthumously, showcasing a digital avatar of himself that had been meticulously crafted by the company’s engineers using advanced machine learning algorithms trained on video and audio clips of Tang. The result? A lifelike representation of Tang that can interact with users, offering a semblance of companionship and comfort to those grappling with loss.

This novel approach to remembrance and revival has sparked both fascination and controversy across China. For a nominal fee, individuals can now create moving digital avatars of their loved ones, allowing them to preserve cherished memories and engage in virtual interactions with the departed. While the technology is still in its infancy and avatars may sometimes appear stiff or robotic, advancements are rapidly being made, bringing these digital doppelgängers ever closer to reality.

“The commodification of deceased individuals for commercial gain has raised a host of ethical and legal questions.”

The story of Bao Xiaobai, a Taiwanese singer who used AI to “revive” his deceased daughter, serves as a poignant example of the emotional resonance of this technology. After more than a year of experimentation, Bao succeeded in creating a video of his daughter singing happy birthday to her mother—a heartfelt tribute that underscores the profound impact of AI on the grieving process. However, as the market for digital humans continues to expand exponentially, ethical concerns have come to the fore.

The commodification of deceased individuals for commercial gain has raised a host of ethical and legal questions. Instances of unauthorized deepfakes featuring deceased celebrities have sparked outrage among families and legal experts alike, prompting calls for stricter regulations and safeguards. Critics argue that interacting with AI replicas of the dead may not be a healthy way to process grief and could potentially cause further psychological distress to grieving individuals.

Furthermore, the practice of using deepfaked video calls to deceive elderly family members about the passing of a loved one has drawn condemnation from ethicists and psychologists. While such acts may be motivated by a desire to protect seniors from emotional distress, they raise fundamental questions about honesty, consent, and the boundaries of digital manipulation.

Despite these ethical quandaries, the market for AI-generated avatars of departed loved ones continues to thrive in China, driven by deeply ingrained cultural traditions and a burgeoning digital economy. The practice of communicating with the dead has a long and storied history in Chinese culture, with rituals such as the annual Qingming festival providing fertile ground for the integration of AI technology into age-old customs.

As China’s digital natives embrace these technologies with increasing fervour, policymakers are grappling with how best to regulate this burgeoning industry. While the allure of digital afterlives may hold undeniable appeal for many, the ethical implications of such technologies cannot be ignored. As we navigate this brave new world of virtual reminiscence, it is imperative that we tread carefully, lest we lose sight of the humanity that binds us together, both in life and in death.