Lileks: Deep Nostalgia uses artificial intelligence to bring Grandma’s photo to life – Minneapolis Star Tribune

01

Have you brought a dead relative back to life recently?

I’ve revived a half-dozen in the past few days, with varying degrees of success. Grandma was a bit off. Something in her smile wasn’t convincing, and when she moved her head, her mouth and eyes didn’t quite move at the same speed. But her husband turned out well, and when he looked at me and made a slight smile, it was almost as if to say, “Thanks, kid. Nice to see you. Remember when we played hide the thimble, and I’d say ‘hot’ or ‘cold,’ and you’d get a peppermint lozenge when you found it?”

I miss him. Bringing him back to life for a few seconds wasn’t enough, but it would be wrong to ask for more.

If you’re wondering whether I have been dabbling in the dark arts of demonic necromancy, well, the short answer is no. And the long answer: It depends. I’m talking about Deep Nostalgia, a new website. Upload any picture of someone’s face, and it uses “artificial intelligence” to convert the old image into a brief animation. The eyes move, the mouth smiles, the head turns, the face is somehow imbued with a spark of life.

Most people, when seeing the result, scream with instinctive revulsion. That is creepy and wrong and awful and frightening and evil. You turned your Grandma into three seconds of godless zombie, for fun? What is the matter with you? What’s next, getting out the old dog’s ashes and gluing them back together?”

No! That would be wrong, and would unnerve the current dog.

I understand why some people are put off by the idea of bringing old photos to life. The technology, called “Deep Fakes,” is as troubling as it is fascinating. Someone recently used the tech to create TikToks of a young Tom Cruise, and everyone was marveling over how real it looked. I thought: Well, yes, but it’s not as if Tom Cruise has aged appreciably in the past 40 years. It’s like doing Dick Clark. But the real problem will be the insertion of doubt into everything we see.

For now, though, it’s an interesting tool. You’ll find Deep Nostalgia at MyAncestry.com, one of those genealogy sites that let you dig deep into your family tree. I’ve never had much interest in these things. But you can find out where you’re from. I know where I’m from. North Dakota. What happened before that isn’t particularly relevant to me.

Let’s say that I find that my great-grandfather came from Skojlkenhaasenven, Sweden. What am I supposed to feel, exactly? Like I can fly to the Old Country, motor up to his village, sit at the local pub and say, “I’m Ole’s great-grandson, come back to the old home. Do I get a discount?”

Well, as long as I’ve signed up, I thought, let’s pop in some family names and see what happens.

Two hours later I’m on Google street view in a Swedish town thinking this is the land from which I came, this is the building that Great-Grandfather saw on his way to market, this is the steeple that was the last thing to fade from view as he left all that he knew and loved for a life in the new world. I have to go there. I have to go to the graveyard and make a headstone rubbing and maybe shed a tear so my DNA can mingle with the resting place of my people.

So. Let’s just say that I get the appeal of these sites now.

Before my father died, we had the chance to go through boxes of old photos and affix names to all the gray pictures of people staring at the camera with grumpy expressions. My grandmother’s father stood out, the faintest hint of a smile under his profuse but well-trimmed mustache. I know nothing about him, other than he and his wife adopted my grandmother — a story whose ordinary but marvelous details will be forever unknown.

I fed the picture into the AI. The program busied itself applying its trickery, then produced a simulation that seemed kind, confident and somewhat mischievous. For a second I thought I had a glimpse of the face my grandmother saw as a child. A father’s kind and loving smile, listening with amused indulgence to something that happened while he was away in town.

It could be utterly wrong. I want it to be right. That’s the problem here. We’d pay an extra $15 a month to upload a picture of the farm, and have Great-Grandfather reanimated in context, walking across the gravel road. But that wouldn’t be enough. We’d want old group photos brought to life. For an extra $2.50, they’ll reanimate the dog in the corner of the picture.

Technology will soon allow all these old small pictures to be infused with motion, and it will be hard to say no. Why should we say no?

Because it’s not true, and we know it. But I think we will want it anyway, because it will seem true enough.

james.lileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 • Twitter: @Lileks • facebook.com/james.lileks

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.