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  • Writer's pictureBen Sharpe

Deep Fake: Why We May Be Dishonouring Our Ancestors With Artificial Intelligence

Updated: Aug 25, 2022

I take my role as a family historian and genealogist very seriously because, to me, it is a very serious business. In order to respect our ancestor's human existences, it is of the utmost importance that their stories are told accurately and truthfully. We are the chosen ones that our ancestors have decided to tell their stories through. It's an honour, a gift and a privilege to be able to do so. Anything less than complete accuracy is to do an injustice to that person and the craft, science and study of genealogy. If we change their stories to fit our own agendas or wanted narratives, we disrespect and dishonour the lives and memories of those who can no longer speak up and correct the falsities.

Now, every single person on earth has a chapter or two of family history that lies uncomfortably with us. History that makes us wince, cringe and even despair. Whether it be criminal heritage, morally bankrupt relatives or just bad apples, we all have that relative that we speak of in hushed tones. Conversely, we also all have ancestors that make us happy and proud through their acts of kindness, charitable efforts and superhuman feats. We loudly and proudly boast of their achievements and legacy. The point is, that is life. We cannot pick and chose which parts of family history are fact. If we celebrate the great, we must at least acknowledge the bad.

The same must be of the tools we use as genealogists. Our tools and methods are there for us in order to gather evidence, research, analyse and report our findings. It's not our place to alter those findings, deny the evidence or smudge over facts just to suit our own mindsets. We wouldn't see a birthplace on a birth certificate of 'Brighton' but then change it ourselves to 'Hove' because we like that place better. So why then, are we changing the looks, mannerisms and personalities of our long gone ancestors with Artificial Intelligence software which animates old photographs and supposedly brings our ancestors to life?

The biggest and most notorious offender is the Deep Nostalgia software by genealogy giants My Heritage. Basically, you upload a photo of an ancestor and impressively powerful software then magically animates that photo so you now see that person smile, blink, look around and move about.

Sounds great doesn't it? We finally get to see our Victorian relatives brought to life and move around just like they really did....

Except, we don't. As impressive as the technology is, like an altered document, Deep Nostalgia is telling a lie.

In a series of tests conducted here at Lighthouse HQ, I uploaded numerous photographs of people I knew or know well, onto the software. The animations that came back were so unlike their genuine, real life mannerisms and affectations that it was almost laughable. Obviously I don't expect the software to correctly guess how these people moved in real life, but it's an issue when family historians celebrate finally seeing how their great, great grandmother would have smiled, blinked and shrugged when in fact they are being fed an incorrect image of that person which in turn creates a false memory of her. That false memory is then added to the family history, shared on social media and family WhatsApp groups and before you know it, the smiling, blinking woman, looking like she's just come out of being frozen in carbonate, becomes the perceived fact. I believe this does a huge injustice to that person.

I know that a lot of people have found pleasure in this technology, Instagram is awash with family historians enthusiastically sharing sepia-toned portraits of spookily grinning, bewildered looking relatives, however, it is a pleasure founded on inaccuracies and falsehoods. It may seem like harmless fun, and at times it is, but as either professional genealogists or passionate family historians, it is our duty to accurately tell the genuine stories of those who have gone before. Just because we may like to think they always wore that wry smile and blinked VERY slowly, the fact is they probably (definitely) didn't. A false image creates false memories.

To be blunt, I believe this is disrespectful to our forbears. Our ancestors all had their own affectations, ticks, imperfections, squints etc.... this technology erases those unique and beautiful features and therefore does a huge injustice to how that person will be remembered. I am aware that sounds dramatic, but we are in the business of telling the human stories of real people who can no longer tell their own story. If we can't tell it accurately, we shouldn't be telling it at all.

Deep Nostalgia and similar AI applications are a great example of the adage that just because we can do something, doesn't mean we should. As family historians and genealogists we should reject this current trend. It is not a genealogy tool, it is a toy.

People will continue to use this technology in their thousands, hobbyists and professionals alike, but if you are serious about family history and have a passion for telling the stories of those whose footsteps still echo, ditch the Deep Fake and enjoy that photograph as it is. It says a thousand words.

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