I didn’t meet my father-in-law until he was 72 years old, so I never really knew what he looked like as a young man. Sure we have old, black-and-white photos of Otto Gunst, but old snapshots don’t give a sense of the way he was. Now, a genealogy website has provided me with a fascinating glimpse at him in his 30s by animating photos using so-called “deepfake” artificial intelligence.
MyHeritage.com lets you upload static pictures of people, then animates that image, creating a short, eerily lifelike video of the person blinking, looking around, smiling slightly. The feature, called Deep Nostalgia, is also a brilliant marketing tool for the site, which sells genealogy and DNA-testing services. You must create a free account to upload images for animating, and that account can then be used with its other features.
Deep Nostalgia is the latest product to set up shop in what’s known as the Uncanny Valley, where technologically generated images and simulations of people look real, but aren’t quite right.
Once you have signed up for an account, you can upload “several” images for free before you’re required to pay for a premium account (MyHeritage doesn’t specify how many freebies you get). Deep Nostalgia uses AI technology from an Israeli company called D-ID which has a software suite that can create talking heads from still photos. There is no audio generated with the Deep Nostalgia images. You can see a demo of this technology in a promotional video featuring Abraham Lincoln.
Once you’ve uploaded an image, the site enhances it, then applies AI to animate the face. The movements are based on a set of drivers created through videos of MyHeritage employees. Once they’re uploaded and in the photo gallery in your account, you can select different sets of animations; each changes the way a face moves.
You can upload photos with multiple people, but only one will be animated at a time.
The video above was generated using a photo of U.S. Army Captain Gunst, taken around 1944 – he’s in his early 30s in the picture. The animation indeed looks like a younger version of the man I knew, who died in 2007. Newer photos of relatives I uploaded were dead-on – their faces moved in ways I remembered.
In its FAQ, MyHeritage concedes that some users may find the results “creepy”, and that may be an understatement:
Some people love the Deep Nostalgia™ feature and consider it magical, while others find it creepy and dislike it. Indeed, the results can be controversial and it’s hard to stay indifferent to this technology. We invite you to create videos using this feature and share them on social media to see what your friends and family think. This feature is intended for nostalgic use, that is, to bring beloved ancestors back to life.
Deep Nostalgia took off on social media over the past few days, with its users posting animated historical photos. The site can also animate photos of painted portraits, which can be even more unsettling.
There are privacy and ethical issues attached to using technology such as Deep Nostalgia. MyHeritage asks that users have the rights to the photos they upload. Deepfake technology has been used to put the faces of celebrities on pornographic videos, or make politicians appear to say things they have not. The MyHeritage feature is more benign, but even it could be abused to harass or upset others.
TechCrunch reports that MyHeritage has been accused by the Norwegian Consumer Council of violating its privacy laws with an “incomprehensible” privacy agreement tied to its DNA-testing service.
And in 2018, the company suffered a major security breach in which more than 92 million user emails and hashed passwords were stolen. MyHeritage said family tree and DNA information was stored separately and not accessed.
For unlimited Deep Nostalgia uploads, MyHeritage requires its most expensive subscription, called Complete, that costs $199 a year. That gives you access to all its features except for DNA testing. If you’ve got a slew of old family photos you want to see come to virtual life, it may be worth it.
Update: As is often the case with genealogy sites, MyHeritage sends promotional emails – a lot of them. After signing up, I found a welcome email in my inbox, and clicking on the “Email preferences” link at the bottom showed I had been automatically signed up for 13 different communiques, as well as for permission to receive telemarketing calls from the site. Unless you’re a fan of spam, mash that preferences link in the first email and clear all those checkboxes.
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