Cherie Bergman’s eyes welled up as she met her father’s gaze for the first time since his tragic death eight years earlier.
With one tap of her phone, the Florida Mum was able to see him blink and smile from behind the screen as if he were alive just yesterday.
What really knocked Cherie, 25, back on her heels was that this wasn’t a replay of an old video. This was something different.
She had uploaded a photo of her late parent to MyHeritage, an app that offers the chance to “reawaken” the dead.
Using artificial intelligence, it creates short videos that breathe life into the subjects of portraits years or even centuries old.
Faces in images are merged over “driver” animations to make the person look as though they are nodding, smiling and more.
The technology shot to fame after going viral last year and raises important questions regarding how far we let AI-altered video go.
‘I WAS HYSTERICAL’
Cherie, a mother-of-five based in Orlando, came across Deep Nostalgia while scrolling through TikTok last March.
People were sharing videos in which the technology brought to life photos of historical figures who lived before the video era, such as Winston Churchill or Queen Victoria.
Cherie went viral after using the technology to alter an image of her late father
Others uploaded their gawping reactions after using the technology to digitally resurrect dead relatives.
Cherie was inspired to give the tool a go herself using a photo of her dad, Rick, who passed away unexpectedly in 2013 aged 67.
What had once been a still image was suddenly alive, Rick blinking and taking in his surroundings as if he were right there with her.
Cherie quickly showed her mother, six sisters and anyone else she could find.
The stay-at-home Mom posted a video of her reaction to Rik’s “reawakening” to TikTok that quickly went viral.
In the 15-second clip, which has garnered 5.5million views, Cherie is visibly overwhelmed, a hand clamped over her mouth in shock.
Video of Rick’s animation then plays, alongside text that reads: “I brought my Dad back after eight years.”
While Cherie’s contorted face might be mistaken for anguish, she says her response was closer to joy.
“It wasn’t a sad feeling,” she explained. “It was an overwhelmingly happy feeling. It was like seeing him one more time.”
Another TikToker whose Deep Nostalgia experience went viral is 99-year-old American war veteran Jake Larson, who goes by “Papa Jake”.
After seeing the technology on social media, his grandaughter filmed his reaction to an animated photo of his late wife, Lola.
“Holy smokes,” Papa Jake, who fought in the D-Day landings in 1944, says in the video. “She’s alive. I can’t believe it.”
Lola passed away 32 years ago and the image used in the video was taken for her high school graduation.
She was married to Papa Jake for nearly six decades.
“I had tears in my eyes when she smiled at me,” Jake, who has 470,000 TikTok followers, said of seeing the video for the first time.
CUTE BUT CREEPY
MyHeritage’s eponymous app offers a range of family history services including DNA testing and the ability to trace your family tree.
Its most popular tool by far, however, is Deep Nostalgia. It was built by Tel Aviv firm D-ID, which specialises in AI-powered video.
Since the launch of Deep Nostalgia in February 2021, MyHeritage says it has animated more than 100million photos.
When a customer uploads a photo, Deep Nostalgia zooms in on the face of the subject and enhances it.
Artificial intelligence merges the face with short, recorded videos of a person moving their head and blinking their eyes.
It can even add bits. If your great grandmother has her mouth closed in a picture, Deep Nostalgia can give her a toothy grin.
Each clip is what’s called a “deepfake”, an existing photo or video manipulated using AI to create realistic but entirely fake events.
Deepfakes have sparked plenty of controversy since emerging in 2017 and as the tech advances, things will likely get more contentious.
They have already been used to create phoney celebrity sex tapes and misleading videos of politicians saying things they never said.
Questions have been raised, however, over how far it should be allowed to advance.
Last year, MyHeritage said that it had deliberately not included speech in the feature “in order to prevent abuse, such as the creation of deepfake videos of living people”.
In March, it U-turned on that decision, launching the ability to make reanimated faces speak with a robotic voice that parrots text provided by the user.
The company instead relies on people choosing to use its services responsibly.
“You’re supposed to use the feature on photos that you own and not on photos featuring living people without their permission,” Vanunu said.
“That is part of the terms and conditions that people are supposed to read before they do anything else.”
According to experts, technology like Deep Nostalgia raises important questions for the future.
Sam Gregory, a leading voice on deepfakes and humans rights, says that clear rules on consent will be more important than ever as the videos become increasingly hard to distinguish from real footage.
“Technology for AI-generated deepfakes is improving rapidly,” he told The Sun.
“Many companies are launching ways to put words in the mouth of either digital avatars or filmed real people to make them say something they never said.
The potential upsides of the technology, of course, cannot be ignored. To people like Cherie, deepfakes have provided a degree of closure following the death of someone they cherished.
“When Dad passed, he was away in Costa Rica,” she said. “He was completely by himself in a country far from home.
“Bringing this photo to life made our hearts feel whole again.”