A new method of remembering and reviving their cherished relatives is emerging as millions of people throughout China flocked to their ancestors’ graves to pay their respects for the annual tomb-sweeping festival this April, a customary day to revere and upkeep the graves of the dead. Some businesses promoted online, however, allow Chinese netizens to construct a moving digital avatar of a deceased loved one for as little as 20 yuan (about $2.75). The market for “digital humans” was estimated to be worth 12 billion yuan in 2022 and is predicted to grow fourfold by 2025.

AI-resurrected avatars may remind us of one of the fabled Deathly Hallows from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the “Resurrection Stone.” It had the ability to recall loved ones from death.

Well, deepfakes are currently being employed extensively in many spheres of life to bring the dead back to life. These days, AI is far more powerful and can regularly bring the dead back to life by using their old voice recordings, images, or video. The domain is being expanded to include various aspects of life, such as bringing back loved ones, resurrecting deceased actors for new films (e.g., Peter Cushing, Audrey Hepburn), or even reviving deceased politicians to capitalise on their magic for election campaigning (e.g., J Jayalalithaa, M Karunanidhi). The options appear to be endless. What about the moral and humanitarian issues, though?

Mental pain

Some are even advocating the outlawing of content that uses AI services to “resurrect” the dead if it causes “mental pain” to the departed’s families. What, though, is the true trade-off? Take an appealing example. While he sat at his computer a little over two decades after his father’s death in 1999, American novelist and journalist Michael Grothaus watched a video of his father, who was healthy and sporting a yellow T-shirt, playing with a smartphone that had been invented many years after his death. He was having fun and taking pictures of the park, which was dappled with sunlight. Then he turned to face the TV and, with his trademark bushy eyebrows raised, gave his son a benign smile.

Grothaus had brought his father back to life through a “deepfake.” It just comes with about a $200 price tag. Grothaus supplied more than 60 seconds of mid-1990s VHS footage for the video. For Grothaus, his father’s digital resurrection created conflicting emotions. He enjoyed the reconnection as he viewed the video over and over. Then he deleted it, appalled at the rift it had created in reality and the implications it held for our perception of truth and trust. In this connection, in his review of Grothaus’ book, in a December 2021 piece published in The Guardian, documentary filmmaker Peter Pomerantsev questioned why people consented to participate in his documentaries. “Our relationship with visual representations of ourselves always runs along this axis of narcissism and dread: at once promising a defeat of death, but by arousing that desire only to disappoint it, crushingly reinforcing its inevitability,” stated Pomerantsev.

Maybe so. But in ‘The End of Life’, the last chapter of his 2021 book Trust No One: Inside the World of Deepfakes, Grothaus stated that “everything about deepfakes is complex — except for the expertise needed to create them.” Indeed, nothing is more intricate than how they affect our perception of truth and trust. AI avatars are starting to appear in an increasing number of human endeavours, and civilisations will have a difficult time handling these complex scenarios.

(The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata)