Is Animating Dead Relatives with AI Cathartic or Creepy? Yes.

Deep Nostalgia presents a predicament that is as old as death itself.
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Russell Quinn was eating breakfast and scrolling Twitter when he came across “Deep Nostalgia,” a new service from Israeli DNA genealogy company MyHeritage and deep learning startup D-ID that turns “historic photos” into short animated videos. The tool went viral shortly after its February 25 launch, with shifting black-and-white portraits of historic figures and ancestors flooding timelines, and celebrities like Jake Tapper and Ian McKellan reveling in its uncanny novelty. As of March 16th, the app has been used to create more than 53 million animations.

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Russel Quinn uploaded a picture of his dad, Richard. He died from acute Leukemia in 1978, two months before Russell was born. “My dad had always existed in my mind as this ethereal figure” Quinn said. “So to suddenly see him [moving] in a nuanced and human way made me feel like I was there, looking at him.” Beyond one grainy Super 8 home movie, the Deep Nostalgia animation gave Quinn his first-ever look at his dad in motion. That motion, though technically robotic, humanized him “I found a connection with this person—is it a person? With this thing, this algorithm—that I had never felt before.” 

Whatever it was, to Quinn, and others who have used the app not to connect to history, but to those they’ve personally lost, Deep Nostalgia presents a predicament that is as old as death itself: the desire to connect with the dead is natural, yet actually doing so can often feel anything but.

Uchenna Richards used the app to bring back her brother, Robert, whom she remembers for his “huge beautiful smile” and for how much he adored his kids. “I felt like this would be a way to see him come alive again,” Richards said. “And I fell in love with it.”

Chris Avern animated his father, Reginald, whom he lost to a heart attack in 2009. Avern has spent the last few years trying to learn the details he didn’t think to pay attention to while his dad was still around, and Deep Nostalgia “was a ‘butterflies’ moment.” 

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“It was surreal. I hadn’t seen him move for so long,” Avern said.

Before writing this, I used the app on an old picture of my mom’s parents, who I’ve never met. I called her up, explained the concept, and sent her the video. Her immediate reaction: disgust. Thirty seconds later, with a lump in her throat, she asked me to animate their wedding photo. My dad just finds it weird.

Neither its algorithm nor the catharsis Deep Nostalgia provides are perfect. Quinn is reluctant to animate his late mother; Richards was hesitant to share it with her niece; a pose stretched too far shocked Avern out of the consolation he felt at first; and pretty much all coverage of Deep Nostalgia—even its own website—acknowledges the tool’s creep-factor.

So why does Deep Nostalgia feel simultaneously like a mutilation and an animation? How can those feelings of creepiness and catharsis coexist?

"I don't think that the answer lies so much in that it's digital.” said Yale University anthropologist Eve Zucker, who studies the intersection of digital media and the memorialization of mass violence. The uncanny valley only explains so much. Instead, that duality is something more endemic to mourning itself.

“Think about ghost stories: why are ghosts troublesome? Because they become present when they’re supposed to be in the past, not engaging with us now,” Zucker said. "But there's this tension. Hauntings imply that something is coming to visit that you don't necessarily want. And that's different from a feeling of reconnecting with someone who is gone, maybe through a dream, or through encountering something they wrote, or just reminiscing.” 

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Zucker sees technologies like Deep Nostalgia as new tools in the long evolution of cultural practices around connecting to and memorializing those we’ve lost, practices that, at their core, blur the lines between the categories of past and present, alive and dead, anguish and catharsis. 

Ultimately, Deep Nostalgia is a way for MyHeritage to advertise its DNA genealogy services by using a novel technology to tug at people's heartstrings, and it has worked tremendously

While the technology behind Deep Nostalgia is novel, the idea behind it isn’t. As virtual reality hype was exploding in 2015, for example, Project Elysium promised to reconnect people with their dead relatives via personalized VR experiences, though the project never progressed beyond an early prototype. And it goes far Beyond AI and deep learning: Psychics Services is a $2.2 billion dollar industry that has been around in one form or another basically for as long as people have been dying.

Of course, it isn’t all swindles and gimmicks. While a Western observer might associate mediumship with sideshows, mediumship plays a serious role in countless religions and cultures. And while digital reanimation is ripe for novel virality, Zucker points to serious, culturally important projects like the USC Shoah Foundation’s “Dimensions in Testimony” project, which combines natural language processing (think: Siri) and 360-degree recordings of Holocaust survivors to create naturally interactive projections that can “talk” to students and museumgoers long after their subjects are gone, carrying the story of the Shoah forever.

Yes, Deep Nostalgia feels both repulsive and alluring, comforting and really, really weird, but grieving—through any media—is always that mixed-bag of pain and catharsis. Just as we’ve integrated once-novel tools and technologies like the written word, paintings, photographs, and home videos into our practices around death, technologies like Deep Nostalgia may too be integrated into our cultural repertoire. “Okay, the picture moves now,” Zucker said. “We’re not used to that now, but how quickly will we become used to it?”