New speech AI technology is able to take just a couple seconds’ worth of audio and extrapolate on it to make complete sentences. Theoretically, scam artists could take a short video from TikTok and use it to impersonate an unsuspecting child. In fact, this has actually happened, and more than once.
It’s easy to see how one could use speech AI to “resurrect” those who have passed away. And in fact, this too has already happened.
In an essay titled “The Speech of the Dead: Against AI Necromancy,” David Walden writes how in 2020, the nonprofit Change the Ref made a video featuring Joaquin Oliver, who encouraged viewers in the clip to vote for gun control in the presidential election. The only problem was that Oliver was murdered in the 2018 school shooting at Parkland, Florida. They created an AI version of Oliver to advocate political activism.
The response wasn’t positive. Many viewers found the video off-putting, creepy, and even “sacrilegious.” Using AI to recreate the persona of a dead person clearly seemed to cross the line. Walden captures the reasons for this nicely when he writes,
The video wants to give its words authority that only Joaquin could give them, but we know Joaquin is dead and these words are not his. We may also feel that something related to grave-robbing is involved: a dead person is being “disturbed,” in some sense, in order to advance the concerns of the living. And we feel, it seems to me, that we are being exploited in a particularly unfair way because of the wounds that a death inflicts on the living, and because of the relative ease with which those wounds can now be exploited owing to advances in AI.-David Walden, The Speech of the Dead — The New Atlantis
With AI heading in this impressive direction, though, such instances of AI “necromancy” may gain popularity. It may sound appealing to those who have undergone painful loss, like the friends and family of young Joaquin Oliver. But Walden reminds us that it’s a form of hubris to put words in the mouths of the dead in order to advance our cause. The words are not theirs, but ours.