Chinese going online for tomb sweeping

Virtual memorials to loved ones on rise in wake of pandemic lockdowns

By LI LEI | China Daily | Updated: 2024-04-05 08:58
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Students pay respect to the deceased through a website at their school in Zigui, Hubei province, in April last year. WANG HUIFU/FOR CHINA DAILY

Embracing AI

Online Remembrance, developed by a tech startup in Wuhan, Hubei province, is another virtual memorial service embedded in WeChat that has trended online.

Rolled out in 2021, it resembles many of its peers in functionality.

It allows users to create digital memorial halls for free, where they can upload photos and the personal information of loved ones. Mourners can also type in a few lines for a digital tombstone. From 1 to 50 yuan ($0.13 to 6.94), users can purchase digital offerings ranging from bouquets to home appliances.

However, over the past few months, the company added a paid function powered by generative AI chatbot technology, which can chat with users in text messages simulating the tones of the deceased based on chat history and other private data uploaded to the platform, such as the user's nickname frequently used by the deceased.

While innovative, this function brings into question the legal rights of the deceased and their representation, but it so far hasn't caused much concern among the public.

"The function is wildly popular, and we have rolled out a free trial period to entice more users," said Zhang Xin, founder and CEO of startup Wuhan Zhongku Info Tech Co.

He said the service accrued about 200,000 users in just two years since its rollout at the height of the pandemic, though the annual increase had slowed last year to about 30,000 when on-site remembrance events resumed.

His team is currently working on another AI-powered function that can animate photos of the deceased.

Zhang said about 60 percent of the service's users are between age 36 and 60, and another 14 percent are aged 60 and older, with many scattered in first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai, who he said are likely to be people living away from ancestral homes where loved ones were laid to rest.

Less than 1 percent are based overseas including the United States and Canada, he said.

Inspired by the demographics of his user base, the CEO added, "We have been working really hard to make our product more accessible to the less-tech-savvy older users, such as using larger Chinese characters on our user interface."

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