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Deepfakes could help us relive history—or rewrite it

They produced a video in which young singers clad in period uniforms and carrying period weapons sang “Hareut,” an iconic song commemorating soldiers killed in combat. As they sing, the musicians stare at faded black-and-white photographs they hold. The young soldiers in the old pictures blink and smile back at them, thanks to artificial intelligence.

The result is uncanny. The past comes to life, Harry Potter style.

For the past few years, my colleagues and I at UMass Boston’s Applied Ethics Center have been studying how everyday engagement with AI challenges the way people think about themselves and politics. We’ve found that AI has the potential to weaken people’s capacity to make ordinary judgments. We’ve also found that it undermines the role of serendipity in their lives and can lead them to question what they know or believe about human rights.

The desire to bring the past back to life in vivid fashion is not new. Civil War or Revolutionary War reenactments are commonplace. In 2018, Peter Jackson painstakingly restored and colorized World War I footage to create “They Shall Not Grow Old,” a film that allowed 21st-century viewers to experience the Great War more immediately than ever before.

Live reenactments and carefully processed historical footage are expensive and time-consuming undertakings. Deepfake technology democratizes such efforts, offering a cheap and widely available tool for animating old photos or creating convincing fake videos from scratch.

But as with all new technologies, alongside the exciting possibilities are serious moral questions. And the questions get even trickier when these new tools are used to enhance understanding of the past and reanimate historical episodes.

The 18th-century writer and statesman Edmund Burke famously argued that society is a “partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Political identity, in his view, is not simply what people make of it. It is not merely a product of our own fabrication. Rather, to be part of a community is to be part of a compact between generations—part of a joint enterprise connecting the living, the dead and those who will live in the future.

If Burke is right to understand political belonging this way, deepfake technology offers a powerful way to connect people to the past, to forge this intergenerational contract. By bringing the past to life in a vivid, convincing way, the technology enlivens the “dead” past and makes it more vivid and vibrant. If these images spur empathy and concern for ancestors, deepfakes can make the past matter a lot more.

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