In a strange case of life imitating art, Microsoft has filed a patent that sounds exactly like the plot of one specific Black Mirror episode. The one with the chatbot of a dead person.
Penned by Charlie Brooker and titled Be Right Back, it was the first episode of Black Mirror season 2, and it originally aired on Channel 4 back in 2013 (before Netflix took over the series). The impressive cast included the MCU's Hayley Atwell and General Hux himself Domhnall Gleeson.
Keep on reading, then, and we'll explain just how Microsoft is potentially bringing the sci-fi tech from that episode into the real world...
Microsoft files patent for making chatbots based on real people
As listed on the official website of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, Microsoft's patent is titled 'Creating A Conversational Chat Bot Of A Specific Person'.
The Abstract in the patent summarises Microsoft's idea thusly: "Examples of the present disclosure describe systems and methods of creating a conversational chat bot of a specific person.
"In aspects, social data (e.g., images, voice data, social media posts, electronic messages, written letters, etc.) about the specific person may be accessed. The social data may be used to create or modify a special index in the theme of the specific person's personality.
"The special index may be used to train a chat bot to converse in the personality of the specific person. During such conversations, one or more conversational data stores and/or APIs may be used to reply to user dialogue and/or questions for which the social data does not provide data.
"In some aspects, a 2D or 3D model of a specific person may be generated using images, depth information, and/or video data associated with the specific person."
This doesn't just apply to deceases loved ones, either. The patent goes on to state, "The specific person [who the chat bot represents] may correspond to a past or present entity (or a version thereof), such as a friend, a relative, an acquaintance, a celebrity, a fictional character, a historical figure, a random entity etc."
Of course, companies like Microsoft file patents all the time, and there's no guarantee that this product will ever go to market. But still, it's a strikingly similar concept to the one from Black Mirror, and let's not forget that Black Mirror is generally perceived as quite a dystopian series.
What ended up happening in that Black Mirror episode?
On the recommendation of a friend, Hayley Atwell's character, Martha, begins conversing with a chatbot based on the online output of Domhnall Gleeson's character, Ash, who recently passed away.
Although initially reluctant, Martha becomes increasingly attached to the virtual Ash, who gradually upgrades from an instant messaging bot to a walking, talking synthetic recreation of Ash's body. Martha even ignores calls with her still-alive sister because she's so enthralled with the replacement Ash.
But Martha eventually realises that the new Ash is not the same as the original, lacking certain physical details and personality traits that Ash never posted about online. The new Ash will follow orders, even ones like 'jump of that cliff', which the real Ash wouldn't. It becomes increasingly apparent that a recreation based on online activity is very different to a real person.
In the end, Martha decides to keep the new Ash in her attic, and allows him to see the real Ash's daughter on weekends and special occasions, but she opts not to have a day-to-day relationship with him.
If Microsoft does end up launching a real-life version of this Black Mirror technology, it seems plausible to predict that creating a chatbot based on a deceased person will create a lot of mixed emotions, difficult conversations and troubling situations, just like the Black Mirror version did. But only time will tell if this does go to market...
For more articles like this, take a look at our Tech page.