AI is resurrecting the dead

The thought of AI resurrecting the dead sounds like the beginning of a sci-fi horror movie. No one really wants to resurrect the dead. Or do we?

In fiction, the ideas of cavorting with Frankenstein, zombies, and ghosts have always been popular. In reality, there have been many ways people try to commune with the dead, such as with séances and ouija boards. There is clearly a widespread fascination with breaking the laws of nature and communicating with the other side. Most of these methods of communication are based on a belief system, or in the case of seeing ghosts (which of course many people legitimately claim to have experienced), are unexplainable by science.

Modern technologies like holograms and life-size projections have started to bring the dead back to life, so to speak. From Whitney Houston to Buddy Holly, there are many opportunities to watch our favourite singers perform from beyond the grave. Up until now, it’s mostly been done with celebrities, and as more of a performance rather than something interactive. But what if these technologies became more accessible to the public, allowing us to conjure up people we actually know, like friends or relatives that have passed away?

Last year, online genealogy platform MyHeritage launched Deep Nostalgia, a technology that animates portrait photographs using AI. It’s scarily realistic, but provides a wonderful opportunity for people who never had a chance to meet their ancestors — even more valuable when a handful of still black and white photos is all you have of those pre-digital-age ancestors. Kicking it up a notch this year, the company has partnered with Tel-Aviv based start-up D-ID that specialises in deep learning. Together, they added sound to the animated photos, so people’s ancestors are now able to ‘tell their stories’. This seems like a relatively harmless application of AI — more wholesome and endearing that inappropriate — although it does resurface the issue of the technology being used for deepfakes in porn and politics.

Amazon is also pushing the boat out, with a whole extra level of creepy: the company has been working on training Alexa to imitate the voices of people’s dead loved ones. On first thought, this is impressively cool, but the second thought that immediately follows after, is whether this is right or healthy? Can someone grieving ever move on if they constantly hear the sound of their loved one’s voice? Is it even ethical? Like harvesting a person’s organs after they die, surely you should need the consent of the person before using their voice. And on the discussion of ethical tech, there is already a Black Mirror episode that speaks to this concept, where a grieving widow uses an AI robot to emulate and embody her dead husband. A great idea at first, she thought, but very quickly, it drove her mad.

These kinds of innovations spark all sorts of questions about whether it’s right or wrong. Should these technologies be available to the general public for personal use? And how can you police what people are using them for? It will certainly be interesting to see how these technologies evolve in the near future.

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