Every new technological creation seems to eventually arrive at a point where you can buy it at 99 percent off its original price.  It’s the classic 99% off sale.  And while it’s not true for everything, we can see it in many ways across the decades.  Look at something like the simple calculator, once a giant machine costing thousands of dollars, ultimately it came down in price (and size) to fit in your wallet as a free giveaway as businesses all over stamped an advertisement on the back as a marketing tool.  Today it’s a free feature on nearly every personal computer and android phone.  In the 1990s Connie Willis focused on the emerging technology of animating dead people in films in her groundbreaking novel Remake (discussed here at borg back in 2012).  It happened and it’s only getting better.  As recently as December Star Wars fans saw Mark Hamill reprise a young Luke Skywalker via imaging software in The Mandalorian, and probably the best use so far can be found by the de-aging of Michael Douglas in the Ant-Man movies. 

In basements (and governments?) across the world software designers and users dabble in “deep fake” imaging, attempting to push this technology to defraud (or prevent the defrauding of) others by digitally replacing faces in all kinds of video recordings.  Imagine making such video images by uploading a static image and simply pressing a button.  Guess what?  Now anyone can.  Look to an unlikely source to visit the future, thanks to a genealogy company’s new software program that costs its subscribers… nothing.  Quietly slipping in its own add-on free to its pay subscribers, a surprisingly good “artificial intelligence” turns any photograph into a short animation.  Yes, you, too, can re-animate the dead, maybe not as Mary Shelley envisioned more than 200 years ago, but take a look for yourself…

The software company is MyHeritage, one of several companies that allow people to upload and download ancestral data, including recently two programs that allowed subscribers to enhance poor quality photos and later, to colorize them in the style being perfected by artist/historian Marina Amaral (I discussed her works previously here at borg).  It also has options to maintain and share family trees and take DNA tests to learn about health risks and compare notes with as-yet unknown relatives (with the proviso that you may be surprised at what information you give up and may learn about relatives who might actually… not be relatives as you’d thought).  The new animation program is a licensed product from MyHeritage called Deep Nostalgia, included with one of the subscription options.  According to MyHeritage:

The remarkable technology for animating photos was licensed by MyHeritage from D-ID, a company specializing in video reenactment using deep learning. MyHeritage integrated this technology to animate the faces in historical photos and create high-quality, realistic video footage. The Deep Nostalgia feature uses several drivers prepared by MyHeritage. Each driver is a video consisting of a fixed sequence of movements and gestures. Deep Nostalgia can very accurately apply the drivers to a face in your still photo, creating a short video that you can share with your friends and family. The driver guides the movements in the animation so you can see your ancestors smile, blink, and turn their heads…. There are several possible sequences of gestures that can be applied to a photo, each originating from a driver video created by MyHeritage in advance. Our system will automatically decide which sequence to apply to a specific face based on its orientation.

The program also allows subscribers to change what sequence of movements are made in the animation.  The entire process takes less than 20 seconds–from upload to video ready.  Check it out for yourself here at MyHeritage.  We gave it a try on the first day available and immediately thought of other applications and subjects.  We found it works with artworks, statues, and more.  Some attempts great, some less so.  Here are just a few of our attempts:

Abe Lincoln

Edgar Allen Poe

Leonardo’s Mona Lisa

Here the AI tries to build a missing pupil for the famous bust of Nefertiti:

And how could we skip Mary Shelley?

Of course not every image will translate perfectly, as seen with the Statue of Liberty’s famous cap, where you can see what techies call the “uncanny valley” that tells your brain this isn’t real, or something “isn’t quite right” with the video:

For subscribers of the website, it’s not a bad tool for looking at the past, seeing ancestors in a new way, even if not entirely accurate, especially considering the program is a free add-on.  But the quick-to-use technology is only the beginning, and again, free to its subscribers.  MyHeritage cautions against using images of living people for these animations, and assigns the rights in the videos to their creators in its terms of use.

For science fiction fans who haven’t read Hugo and Nebula award-winning author Connie Willis’s books, then you should check them out.  The concepts and Hollywood prophesies in her novel Remake represented a foreshadowing of the future of film only slightly touched on in the Ralph Fiennes film Strange Days.  If we didn’t know it before, we know it now: Remake is science fiction futurism at its best (it was nominated for a Hugo Award in 1996, too).  In our near future, Hollywood no longer needs to make new productions with top-dollar actors.  A film technician rearranges classic films via computer manipulation, so that the viewer can select who he wants to watch the next time he watches Raiders of the Lost Ark.  How about John Wayne?  How about Humphrey Bogart?  Why not edit out all the cigarettes so we no longer encourage smoking for future viewers?  What other movies would be fun to manipulate?  This is the world of our future (through the view from the 1990s) where Viacom and Paramount become Viamount, where actors are reduced to stand-ins. 

Willis got pretty close.  In the book a film technician falls for a woman who wants to dance in a musical and he is continually sidetracked as he pursues her through the novel.  The love story is well done—but it was the world of today that it telegraphed that stands out.  You would not need to film an entire movie, simply clips, like the old soda pop ads that blended dead celebrities with living ones, and that allowed Nat King Cole to star in a now dated music video with his grown daughter, the singer Natalie Cole.  Hollywood had the technology then and has only improved it for today. Why not see how far CGI can go?–that’s what I asked back in 2012, before Disney and Lucasfilm would resurrect Peter Cushing to play Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, 22 years after the actor’s death.  And it only continues to improve in quality.  

Clearly, the future is now.  Or at least it’s much closer.

C.J. Bunce / Editor / borg