My wife recently pointed me to this video clip on YouTube — an excerpt from a full-length Korean documentary — which depicts a mother venturing into virtual reality to interact with the beloved daughter that she had lost to leukemia. This is truly an episode of Black Mirror brought to life. It reminds me, in particular, of the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back”.
The computer programmers fed multiple images of the girl from photographs and videos into a program in order to recreate a 3-D representation. They also recreated her voice (or a very close approximation thereof) with a voice actor. The voice actor also learned the kind of things the child would say so that she could accurately recreate a possible conversation. Next, they placed that 3-D representation in virtual reality and the mother visited her there.
In the clip below, we see the mother first interact with her beloved child in VR. All agree that the mother’s grief is agonizing to witness, but opinions were decidedly mixed on whether this use of technology is healthy for a grieving parent. The mother insisted that it was deeply therapeutic to have this experience, but others worry that this kind of experience is potentially harmful and threatens to prolong the intensity of grief and delay the process of healing. Interestingly, in my view, the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back” seems to take a middling position between these two extremes.
I haven’t decided what I think about it all. And that means that my article title is somewhat misleading: I don’t have much to say about the ethics of this use of technology. Except, perhaps, this: if this is a beneficial use of technology, one can assume it will remain for some time a prohibitively expensive therapeutic option available only to the well off.