I dialled the voicemail number again, panic rising in my throat.
‘Your mailbox is empty!’ the jaunty disembodied voice repeated.
I’d left it too long. The last voicemail my mum had accidentally left me from her hospital bed had disappeared, deleted after 30 days by my oblivious network provider.
While planning the funeral, I’d been calling repeatedly for the comfort of hearing her speak – but I hadn’t thought to save the message. Now she was dead, and I’d lost my mum’s voice.
Yet 14 years after her death, Amazon’s Alexa is developing technology that could potentially make Mum speak again – and the idea makes me shudder.
Do they honestly think that Alexa mimicking a dead relative’s voice is going to be comforting?
My first reaction to this tech-necromancy was like a leaden weight in my gut. I had a longing for Mum’s voice, coupled with an immediate rejection of hearing her blurt out the weather or read the day’s headlines.
My mum was a woman who died with no awareness of smartphones, emojis, or Instagram. She had no concept of the power that technology would have over our daily lives. There’s no way I’d want a piece of electrical equipment using artificial intelligence to make her say things she never said.
Amazon posits their new tech development as a sentimental tool to help those who’ve lost loved ones, especially during Covid. But to me, it just feels like Amazon sees the pandemic’s overwhelming death toll as a business opportunity.
There are more serious implications too.
Let’s not forget that the point of Alexa is to enable targeted marketing — not just to you, but about you. Using your dead loved ones to facilitate that is cheap and grimy. Besides, what else might their voices be used for? It’s no secret that data protection is a murky world, and some scientists are concerned that technology outpacing security poses a real threat.
What if my dead mum’s voice was sold off and used for marketing purposes? Despite her career as an actress, I don’t think she’d be too happy about that (not least because she’d never see the royalties).
If you’d asked me about Alexa’s voice mimicking capabilities when Mum’s death was more recent, maybe I’d have been more keen on the idea.
After all, I spent years worried I’d forget her voice. Eventually she began appearing in my dreams, which meant I could at least have a chat with her.
Of course, it’s been long enough now that I don’t know if it’s truly her voice I’m remembering, or my memory’s interpretation of it.
And again, it’s my subconscious mind that’s resurrecting her – not Jeff Bezos.
Unfortunately, I know firsthand that hearing voices of the dead can be problematic. When my dad was diagnosed with a terminal illness in 2017, I began recording our conversations in secret. I was convinced his voice would comfort me through my eventual grief.
But in the four years since Dad’s death, I still can’t bear the thought of listening to that string of unopened voice notes. I know if I hit play, I’ll hear his ragged breathing and the pauses between words as he struggled for air. I’ll hear the emptiness of the conversations we never managed to have. And it’ll bring back images of his final six months with startling clarity: memories I really don’t want to relive.
Deleting the recordings doesn’t feel like something I could do – but who knows if I’ll ever be able to listen?
My dad was a fiercely independent man who made his feelings clear. Would he have consented to becoming a disembodied voice? Absolutely not. Just like in life, his autonomy and consent are still important.
By putting artificial words into the mouths of the dead, Alexa’s latest development will only complicate and prolong people’s grief. It’s dangerous to give people a small hint of their loved one and nothing more. But like a moth to a technological flame, vulnerable grievers are undoubtedly going to grasp for a continued connection to those they’ve lost.
Unfortunately, a necessary part of grieving someone’s death is understanding that they’ve truly gone. I’ve had 14 years to accept that my mum isn’t coming back, and it still feels unbelievable sometimes.
If I’m making wishes, I’d want to communicate properly with my late parents. And I don’t mean via seance or a medium – I’d just love to have a normal, casual conversation.
Just like the conversations I have with Mum in dreams, this Alexa gimmick is a hollow imitation of the real thing. It can’t bring her to life again, and it can’t resurrect the connection we once had. But at least when she talks in my dreams I get to talk back. And I know the only person putting words in her mouth is me.
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