Communing with the Dead Online: Chatbots, Grief, and Continuing Bonds

Journal of Consciousness Studies 29 (9-10):222-252 (2022)
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Grief is, and has always been, technologically supported. From memorials and shrines to photos and saved voicemail messages, we engage with the dead through the technologies available to us. As our technologies evolve, so does how we grieve. In this paper, we consider the role chatbots might play in our grieving practices. Influenced by recent phenomenological work, we begin by thinking about the character of grief. Next, we consider work on developing “continuing bonds” with the dead. We argue that for some, chatbots may play an important role in establishing these continuing bonds by helping us develop what we term “habits of intimacy”. We then turn to the “ick factor” some may feel about this prospect, focusing especially on ethical concerns raised by Patrick Stokes and Adam Buben about the risk of replacing our dead with chatbots. We argue that replacement worries are not as pressing as Stokes and Buben suggest. We resist these replacement worries by appealing to the “thin reciprocity”, as we refer to it, that such bots offer, as well as the fictionalist stance that we think users of the bots adopt when engaging with them. We conclude by briefly raising some additional concerns and highlighting future research questions.

Author Profiles

Lucy Osler
Cardiff University
Joel Krueger
University of Exeter


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