Could chatbots lend a non-judgemental ear to people making decisions about the end of their life? A virtual agent that helps people have conversations about their funeral plans, wills and spiritual matters is set to be trialled in Boston over the next two years with people who are terminally ill.

People near the end of their lives sometimes don’t get the chance to have these important conversations before it’s too late, says Timothy Bickmore at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. So Bickmore and his team – which included doctors and hospital chaplains – built a tablet-based chatbot to offer spiritual and emotional guidance to people that need it. “We see a need for technology to intervene at an earlier point,” he says.

And it has already seen some success. Bickmore’s team initially tested the chatbot with 44 people aged 55 and over in Boston. Just under half those adults had some kind of chronic illness, and nearly all had spent time with someone who was dying. After spending time talking to the chatbot, most of the participants reported that they felt less anxious about death and were more ready to complete their last will and testament.