Microsoft has been issued a patent for a chatbot that could take on another person’s personality and likeness.
According to documents from the US Patent and Trademark Office, the chatbot would be created through information that could easily be gathered on social media — images, voice data, behavioral information, social media posts, and text messages. It could even take on a physical presence, the documents show, which include plans for two and three dimensional recreations of people gathered through photos and videos of the individual.
While Microsoft’s patent does not specifically say that the product would be used to bring deceased people back to life digitally, the plan does use dead loved ones as an example of how the chatbot could be implemented to recreate and imitate individuals from the real world.
“The specific person 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,” the patent reads.
After the news of Microsoft’s patent hit social media, users compared it to an episode from “Black Mirror,” called “Be Right Back,” which follows a character bringing a loved one back from the dead after a car crash using technology similar to that described in the patent. Like most Black Mirror episodes, the story takes a dark path when the character realizes the AI representation does not truly bring her deceased loved one back to her.
The patent was filed in 2017, but not approved until December 2020. Tim O’Brien, General Manager of AI Programs at Microsoft responded to some of the concerned tweets about the patent online, saying he’s looking into the patent, though he’s not aware of any plans to actually build or ship it.
The use of another person’s likeness or personality could also cause some interesting legal battles if implemented. In most states in the US, an individual can be sued for using another person’s likeness, name, or personal attributes for an “exploitative purpose” without permission from the individual, according to the Digital Media Law Project.
Even the use of a deceased individuals likeness could cause legal troubles. 23 states in the US recognize postmortem rights, which allow a deceased person anywhere from 10 to 100 years of protection from unauthorized use of their identity — including name, voice, image, and likeness — from being used for profit.
It is not uncommon for a person’s likeness to be used without their consent, for example an individual can be legally photographed in public without their consent. Similarly, many celebrities in Hollywood have continued to be represented in media without their consent even after death, with celebrities like Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley continuing to generate millions, decades after their deaths.
In 2019, one production company brought James Dean back digitally, using existing footage and photos to recreate the actor through CGI for the war film, “Finding Jack.”