“Séance” comes from a French word which means “session” and from an Old French word meaning "to sit." Both are appropriate for part of the modern definition of “séance” – to sit with a spiritual medium for a session involving a conversation with a dead person or spirit. The popularity of séances has waxed and waned throughout history - Mary Todd Lincoln organized séances in the White House to speak to her deceased son and President Abraham Lincoln was in attendance. Séances take on many forms depending on the medium and the location – religious, stage, psychic, social and do-it-yourself (Ouija boards). They also gain media attention when non-believers – often magicians or scientists – attempt to debunk them. James “The Amazing Randi” Randi was one such magician who worked to expose mediums as frauds right up until his own death in 2020. Unfortunately, he’s not around to examine the latest addition to the world of séances – artificial intelligence. A company called AE Studio has unveiled Seance AI – a service using large language models (yes, like ChatGPT) to allegedly allow one to ‘communicate’ with a deceased loved one ... or a deceased hated one or anyone else you ask it to.
“We’re trying to give people a chance to say goodbye, or ask questions, or just have some closure.”
If that sounds like the reason why most people throughout history have participated in a séance (questions like “Where did you bury the money?”), then designer Jarren Rocks, the creator of Seance AI, has accomplished his goal of “trying to make it sound as magical and as mystical as possible." Then again, Madame Zita and Zoltan Fortune Teller sounded (and looked) magical too, but those ancient fortune telling arcade machines are mechanical dinosaurs compared to Seance AI. There was no interaction between the spirit seeker and those machines other than placing a coin in the slot, pressing a button, thinking of a question and picking up a piece of paper with an answer or fortune. Everyone who hasn’t spent the last six months under a rock knows that ChatGPT and other chatbots hold actual ‘conversations’ and seem to have minds of their own. Is that true of Seance AI as well?
"It's essentially meant to be a short interaction that can provide a sense of closure. That's really where the main focus is here. It's not meant to be something super long-term. In its current state, it's meant to provide a conversation for closure and emotional processing."
In an interview and demonstration with Futurism, Rocks shows how a séance with Seance AI begins much like a real one. After going to the seanceai.com, the “medium” – in this case, Seance AI – begins to ask questions about the deceased: their name, their age when they died, their relationship to the person, cause of death, things about their personality, and maybe even something they liked to say. At that point, Seance AI takes over and becomes the “medium” facilitating the conversation with the deceased spirit. Well, ‘conversation’ as in texting messages back and forth.
“I miss you all very much, too. I'm glad to hear that you and your siblings are doing well, and that your mom is doing okay."
In the demonstration for Futurism, Seance AI required the user to ask a question or make a statement to kick things off. The AI then responds in an appropriate manner. In the above example, the user said “HI Dada. I miss you a lot.” As you can see, the Seance AI knew the user had siblings from the questions it asked in the set-up phase.
“Keep taking care of each other and making me proud! Remember that I'm watching over you and cheering you on. Take care, and I hope we can talk again soon. Love, Dad."
That would be a nice conversation with a deceased loved one … if it continued along those same lines. Unfortunately, the driving force behind Seance AI is AI – and we are learning quickly that conversations with other chatbots break down quickly as the conversations get longer. As the Futurism demo showed after a few questions, Seance AI became repetitious – perhaps this is a feature built into the algorithm to keep it from getting too personal and causing a negative reaction, profound grief or even trauma in the user. Rocks admits this is a problem.
"For short conversations, I think it feels decently human. I think it falls apart a little bit [when you] start to pick up on repetitions. It's following a pattern, it doesn't really know exactly what's going on."
Is Seance AI a real spiritual medium allowing a relative or friend to speak to a deceased loved one? An article in KnowTechie has a better description – grief tech. It seems AE Studio is far from the only company offering an AI conversation with the dead, although Seance AI seems to be the most advanced at the moment. Historian and journalist Oliver Bateman fed ChatGPT-4 thousands of emails written by his late father and noted that “it could not replicate my father’s erratic punctuation usage” nor could it mimic his syntax. In the end, he admitted that “the AI analyzed and reproduced a version of my father distinct from who I remembered. But perhaps there were things I had missed.” In other words, he didn’t give the AI enough data to recreate a perfect image of his father, or even one that was close. That seems to be the same thing Futurism’s Maggie Harrison found.
What would James “The Amazing Randi” Randi find if he tried to debunk Seance AI? An easy task. There is nothing really magic, misdirectional or deceiving about Seance AI. In its current form, it is in a sense closer to Zoltan than we or Jarren Rocks would care to admit. It is providing a bit of grief counseling rather than a real – and so far as we know impossible – conversation with a deceased person. James Randi exposed many mediums as frauds, but didn’t always put them out of business. Why? They provided a useful service of helping people deal with grief in a way that was cheaper and surprisingly less controversial (and less embarassing for some) than going to a trained psychologist of counselor.
Seance AI may sound magical and mystical, but perhaps a good cry with a good living friend might still be the best way to deal with grief.