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26 February 2021

Reanimating the past - or the present - or the future?

If you wander around social media, you may have seen in the last few days a couple of viral videos posted on a TikTok account called @deeptomcruise. They have gained attention because the manipulated video really does look and sound like Tom Cruise, at least enough so that it could easily pass muster with those not looking too deeply. 

Fake Tom Cruise does a magic trick

No word yet on who's making these videos--although the "deeptomcruise" name seems intended both to acknowledge and to warn viewers that this is what is called a "deepfake" video, which uses a form of artificial intelligence to create what seem to be real videos, depicting real people doing and saying things they never said or did

A few years ago, a Slovakian citizen living in the Czech Republic set up a YouTube channel called "Ctrl Shift Face" where he posted a series of manipulated videos he said were meant to demonstrate the potential and the danger of faked videos. They included swapping Jim Carrey in for Jack Nicholson in "The Shining," or superimposing Sylvester Stallone as the kid in "Home Alone." What gained the most attention was a video that showed actor Bill Hader slowly morphing into Tom Cruise as he chatted with a late-night talk show host.

An old photo and its animation via MyHeritage

So what does this have to do with genealogy? Well, coincidentally a few days ago MyHeritage released a new app called Deep Nostalgia™, which uses technology to animate the faces in still photos. Last year MyHeritage introduced a technology for colorizing old black & white family photos. Now you can make the people in those photos smile, blink, and move their heads. 

Results are mixed, with users describing the effect as anything from "amazing" to "creepy." (Apparently it's most creepy when seen on photos of people you knew in life.) 

Is this a good thing? A bad thing? While many pundits have sounded dire warnings about the potential for  deepfake technology being used to defraud or manipulate, it's possible that this will just become another effect we're accustomed to. The special effects of earlier movies are obviously fake to modern eyes. Meanwhile, historically-minded filmmakers already have enhanced old film clips by slowing frame speed, colorizing them, and adding sound, as in the famous "A Trip Down Market Street" from 1906, or Peter Jackson's 2018 documentary "They Shall Not Grow Old," made using film clips from World War I. As genealogists, we are always looking for ways to reanimate the past. Perhaps this is just the newest technology in our toolkit.

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