Will chatbots help people accept death?

Posted: 05/01/2018

We are all fairly aware these days of the prevalence of chatbots, especially when it comes to the customer service experience. Whether it be sorting out a phone bill or a quick query about our bank account, it is increasingly common for a bot to instantaneously respond to our general queries.

However, where you aware that chatbots are now also being used to help people come to terms with death?

Emily the chatbot


Will chatbots that talk with patients who are terminally ill about becoming increasingly common in the future? Source: LifeFolder


We introduce to you Emily: the free messenger bot developed by LifeFolder just last year. It has been created with the intention of imitating a trained nurse, to help people discuss end-of-life planning decisions. The problem it aims to solve is the problem many people have concerning how to approach the subject of death. It is a prominent issue that seems to be shrouded in secrecy: research conducted by Macmillan Cancer Support revealed that two in three people in the UK believe we do not discuss death enough. This is partly due to some of the barriers in place: the statistics suggest that our attitudes about dying seem to indicate that we still believe death is a ‘taboo’ subject. In the same research and survey carried out, it was also revealed that:

  • At least 15% opted out of answering questions about death
  • Over 84% surveyed indicated their fears about dying
  • A fifth of people said they didn’t feel comfortable discussing their thoughts and feelings over dying with anyone they knew
  • 22% were concerned about voicing their views on death because they didn’t want to upset or bother others

With these statistics in mind, could it be, in fact, that an impersonal chatbot is exactly what people are looking for when they are dealing with a terminal illness? If many people fear upsetting loved ones by discussing their death and the funeral plans that need to be made, then perhaps it can make evidently difficult conversations easier, in what is already a stressful time. It could also help those who are socially isolated and do not have anyone to discuss their situation with in real life.

How can chatbots help with talking about death?


Many people report feeling deeply uncomfortable talking about death with loved ones. This is where chatbots could be particularly beneficial

Emily the bot is trained to help walk through all manners of end-of-life decisions, including funeral plans and the handling of your estate by helping people complete the relevant and essential legal paperwork.

Primarily, the messenger bot helps with the three following documents, and talks through the advantages and disadvantages of these decisions throughout with the patient:

  • The first is a document allowing you to nominate who would like to speak on your behalf if you are unconscious and unable to let people know your wishes
  • The following document named the Advance Directive, allows you to outline your priorities and wishes regarding healthcare
  • The final document concerns organ and tissue donation, and whether you want to opt in or out

This kind of help with end-of-life planning could be particularly beneficial for those who live in countries where it is harder to access support on the matter. In the US for example, it was only in 2016 that end-of-life consultations were included in Medicare coverage. Such cover is evidently in demand, as when this was implemented in the US, double the amount of elderly people (Medicare covers specifically people over the age of 65) opted for a consultation.

However, what the chatbot can’t do, is mimic a conversation you may have regarding religion and your anxiety and fears about dying. But, there is now a chatbot for that too.

A spiritual chatbot?


2017 saw the development of not only bots that can help with end-of-life planning, but also have a spiritual nature too.

Presented in 2017 in Stockholm at the International Conference on Intelligent Virtual Agents, researchers from the Boston Medical Center and Northeastern University showed their tablet-based messenger bot that could respond in a ‘pro-spiritual mode’ to patients. The bot is able to support Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism and Sikhism, and tailors its dialogue depending upon their religion, helping to support the user and their sense of spirituality.

Whilst the experiment was conducted with a small amount of people: 44,  the feedback received by researchers on their experience with the bot revealed some interesting thoughts. Participants reported that they found it comforting to speak to the bot about their spirituality, free from judgement. Most reported after the trial that they felt less anxious about death generally and felt better about completing their will and last testament. Previously trialled with those between 45-55, half of whom had a chronic illness, the next stage of the trial is intended to be given to 364 people who have been given less than a year to live.

We’ve already seen the creation of similar bots such as the one created in 2015 by the University of Singapore. Nadine seen in the above video, is the world’s most human-like robot, and she is currently employed as a university receptionist. She’s able to meet and greet visitors, and chat with guest too, based on her previous experiences with them. She doesn’t fully understand accents though. The creators hope to eventually get Nadine to provide friendship to lonely pensioners.

But will these chatbots solve the growing needs of the terminally ill and the elderly, and can they really replace human interaction in what is one of the most delicate issues there could possibly be: death? Could robots be in fact increasing people’s isolation, rather than helping them? The ethical dimensions of chatbots when it comes to death remain largely a grey area with no outright conclusion on the help they provide, partially because the trials that have been undertaken have been conducted on small groups, and with the technology still in its early stages. Nevertheless, the debate over artificial intelligence helping the ill to cope with death is a subject that should be dealt with considerable sensitivity, whatever its outcome.