When the parents of a teen murdered in America’s deadliest high school shooting were approached by an advertising agency to digitally resurrect their son for an election video, they didn’t hesitate for a moment.
“You’re interviewing parents of a kid that was murdered inside his school,” said Manuel Oliver, the father of Joaquin Oliver whose life ended at the age of 17 on February 14, 2018.
“So, in order for us to feel impressed, it’s really hard. The bar is very high. We said yes, immediately.”
Joaquin was one of 17 people killed that day at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida by a former student.
Since then, Manuel and his wife Patricia Oliver have dedicated their lives to the cause of gun control.
First, they supplied the agency with photos of their late son. An actor who resembled Joaquin recorded the message. Then using artificial intelligence (AI), Joaquin’s face was mapped onto the actor’s, like a digital mask.
The video was posted earlier this month on www.unfinishedvotes.com and YouTube, where it’s received about 150,000 views.
“Yo, it’s me” opens AI Joaquin, wearing a sweatshirt and beanie as he speaks in front of a basketball court, to a backdrop of eerie music.
Like the real Joaquin, the AI version sprinkles his speech with the word “bro” and gestures a lot with his hands.
“I’ve been gone for two years, and nothing’s changed bro,” he says.
“The election in November is the first one I could have voted in, but I’ll never get to choose the kind of world I’ll get to live in.”
He rails against politicians who care more about the gun lobby’s money than people’s lives, and ends with a haunting message: “Vote for me, because I can’t.”
So-called “deepfakes” — highly-realistic videos generated by AI — have become notorious for their sinister associations, like putting words into politicians’ mouths or celebrities’ faces into porn videos.
Sometimes the technology is put to other uses, like bringing back deceased actors for movies.
But Joaquin’s video is a unique case. Is it ethical to make a dead child speak, even for a good cause?
“This is a perfect example of the good side of these technologies,” says his father Manuel.
To his detractors who accuse the family of being unethical — of whom there are many in the YouTube comments section — Manuel responds angrily.
“The unethical option of doing something like this, or the unethical way our politicians handle gun violence in our country?”
– ‘Fine line’ –
Tim Jones, executive creative director at McCann New York, said he reached out to the Olivers with his “crazy idea,” not knowing how they’d react.
“It’s a very fine line, (an) ethical, emotional line. But Patricia and Manuel were very keen,” said Jones, himself a father.
The biggest obstacle was technical: AI normally needs thousands of images to reconstruct a person.
But in Joaquin’s case, there wasn’t enough source material.
“He was a teenager, his face changed every day,” said Jones.
Brazil’s Lightfarm Studios took six months to complete the production, with the final rendering comparable to a high-end video game.
Not perfect, but “very, very close to Joaquin,” said Manuel.
The voice is a slightly altered version of the actor’s, because there weren’t enough recordings of Joaquin.
As for the script, Joaquin’s parents say they were inspired by their son’s own writings, arguing he was invested in politics and the gun debate.
“You can go and check his Twitter,” says Patricia.
“Joaquin was also my best friend. So, when you have a best friend for more than 17 years you know exactly how he thinks, how he reacts to things,” added Manuel.
It’s these precautions that reassure Mary Ann Franks, a legal scholar at the University of Miami.
“I wouldn’t want to second guess a parent’s choice of how to grieve,” she said, stressing that parents make all kinds of decisions for their minor children, living and dead.
Most importantly, says the civil rights and technology expert, “It’s not manipulation with the intent to deceive.”
“I wish this was the way to bring Joaquin to life. But there’s no way to do that,” said Manuel. “We’re not lying to anyone, it’s obvious that we’re using this to send the message.”