Animating the past: MyHeritage's deepfakes create a 'post-life' for historical photos

US genealogy service's DeepNostalgia experiment with deepfakes has gone viral - and marks a departure in our relationship with history
Animating the past: MyHeritage's deepfakes create a 'post-life' for historical photos

L-R: A pensive-looking Johann Sebastian Bach, and Oscar Wilde, seen here side-eyeing someone. Two historical figures brought to life by MyHeritage's DeepNostalgia service.

The thing about the pervasiveness of modern technology as we currently stand, for many people, is that the line between everyday function and speculative fiction is thinning at an exponential rate.

For better or worse, waves of social media have altered and compartmentalised our communication skills over the past 15 years. Devices like Alexa log our habits while helping us run our houses, while streaming audio and video are well on the way to cannibalising traditional formats, with algorithms jostling with human intuition and 'lived' culture for influence in our consumption habits.

You can easily dismiss these phenomena and their ramifications as a means to an end - after all, you choose whether or not you engage with them, and to what extent if so - ultimately, you feed the ghost that the machine thinks it's selling stuff to.

But another, far more visual signifier of how data and technology can alter perceptions has gone viral in recent days on social media - and whereas we're accustomed to the future being an ever-changing thing, this development seeks to de-calcify the past.

The tweet above was shared by actor Ian McKellen, and if you've been hanging around Twitter the last week or so, it'll be immediately familiar.

There's Oscar Wilde, as we've seen him countless times in our lifetimes - mute, staring, a historical fact long after his passing.

But then it moves. The Wilde in the picture, not the Wilde of history, tilts its head and blinks. It's stilted, inelegant, and obviously pulled to one centre from which his movement originates.

Countless late historical figures, celebrities, and family members have been uploaded to MyHeritage's service DeepNostalgia over the past few days and been shared around social media as a result, marvelling at the early-stages realism of the technology, and of seeing people, in a limited way, liberated from the restraints of a moment they've been captured in.

The world of online genealogy is nothing new, albeit with an ever-increasing uptake as people seek to gain a better sense of their roots and the world that preceded them. 

Services like MyHeritage offer DNA-matching to existing databases, partially generated by user research, as well as fringe benefits, like digital photo repair and remote access to birth records, census takings and the like. These have all raised ethics and privacy questions of their own, which are bound to occur if private companies are to be trusted with personal data.

But by taking the step into deepfakes - procedurally-generated animations of existing images to simulate movement and mannerism - it seems like we're at the beginning of another chapter in our collective relationship with the past; people, whose lives and accomplishments are with time removed from their bodies and intangible selves, are given something of a second life.

Using deep-learning technology licenced from the D-ID company, the service locates points of animation and articulation on a headshot and applies movement to them, shifting the image frame-by-frame, and stretching the background around it to give the illusion of seamless motion.

Right now, it's all quite uniform - the images all follow the same range of movement - head turns, darting eyes, and a Mona Lisa-esque smile. The facial movement in particular is still leaving artifacts around the image as it proceeds, as seen with Wilde above.

It's had an immediate and emotional impact on users, quite understandably. Seeing relatives you miss, or have never met, moving around in a colour-corrected, high-definition approximation of a moment in time is quite something. And who doesn't have someone they miss?

But as machine-learning improves with time and the advance of technology, the DeepNostalgia phenomenon also bears food for thought.

Is the past we've inherited always going to be an inarguable, factual series of events? Are the physical reminders of human beings that get lost to the passing of ages going to be inhabited with simulacra generated by data and synthesis?

While things like historical re-enactments, CGI and second-space experiences like Minecraft or virtual reality have been great tools in interfacing with history, DeepNostalgia manipulates it directly. How we use it, and where it goes in response, remains to be seen.

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