“Be Right Back” really tugs at one’s heartstrings. The story follows a loving couple, Martha and Ash — well, sort of. Ash dies suddenly very early on in the episode, leaving Martha alone to cope with the loss of her long-term partner. Ash, however, still exists online, and Martha learns about a messaging service that aggregates data from his online activity to create a simulated version of Ash. This program enables Martha to communicate with Ash, although it’s really just an artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot emulating his mannerisms. As she grows attached to AI Ash, it becomes more “alive,” but at the same time, she becomes more dissatisfied.
Social media exacerbates the grieving process; makes it more difficult for people to move on. People tend to have accounts across multiple social media platforms, and even after death, these data trails remain. Ash is a prime example of this because he was a heavy social media user, so the AI had ample material to reference — comments, tweets, photos, and videos. In an article by Bel Trew, she details the potential dangers of social media for people who are grieving. For some, social media profiles of the deceased serve as a painful reminder of loss, while others obsess over the digital remnants and become depressed, like Martha. Thus, chatbots like AI Ash can cause more harm than good, but this doesn’t stop companies like Microsoft from making it a reality.
AI Ash is “living” proof of the online disinhibition effect. It behaves differently than Ash would if he was alive because social media is a performance. For example, when AI Ash picks up a photo of Ash he says it’s “funny” because that’s what Ash captioned the photo on social media. In reality, Ash didn’t think it was funny at all because he associated it with a bad memory. However, that’s not something Ash would share on his social media; it was too personal and serious, and Ash was not a serious type of guy. He shared the photo because he thought other people would find it funny as if to maintain appearances.
Martha displays a wide range of behaviors and reactions as she moves through the 5 stages of grief. When Martha’s friend, Sarah, first suggests the messaging service to her, Martha is angry. She is very hostile to the idea of a bot using Ash’s name. Despite her reservations, she’s vulnerable and alone, so she caves and talks to AI Ash. This desperation to see him and hear his voice drives her to the edge — quite literally. It’s heartbreaking to watch her become addicted to the technology only to experience more pain.
I like how this episode presents grief as a rollercoaster of emotions as opposed to a linear development with discrete steps because that’s not how grieving works. The moment of short-lived euphoria that Martha feels with AI Ash makes the story feel more real. The pacing of the story, however, was rushed. There was simply too much to fit into 44 minutes. The ending was as abrupt as Ash’s death, and on top of that, it was eerie and lacked closure. Although, I appreciate that the writers didn’t make Martha and AI Ash the happy ending because that would’ve felt wrong.
I enjoyed watching this — minus the creepy scenes. The AI software and the interactions between Martha and the AI were fascinating. I probably wouldn’t re-watch this, it was quite depressing. After taking all of these factors into consideration, I rate “Be Right Back” 4/5 stars
After reading this review, consider the following: is technology a problem in and of itself, or is it the people who design and use it, or is it both?
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Cover Image: screencap of “Be Right Back”