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Holograms and AI can bring dead celebrities back to 'life'

Immortality is entirely achievable if you have the holograms and training data to pull it off.

Video Transcript

CLAIRE SISCO KING: Celebrity has existed for centuries, and the way it exists now is not fundamentally different from how it used to be but it has been really amplified, intensified, and made more ubiquitous because of changing industry and technological norms that have developed in the 20th century.

- We've revered stars and celebrities as a matter of culture for millennia. Ancient tales of immortal gods rising again and again after fatal injury, the veneration and deification of social and political leaders, Madame Tussauds wax museums, and the Academy Awards annual in memoriam, they're all facets of the human compulsion to put well-known thought leaders, tastemakers, and trendsetters up on pedestals. And with a new startlingly lifelike generation of generative AI now at our disposal, today's celebrities could potentially remain with us long after their natural deaths like ghosts but still on TV touting Bitcoin and Metaverse apps.

Cheating death has been an aspirational goal of humanity since prehistory. Technological advances since the Middle Ages have thankfully eliminated the need to carry around desiccated bits of our heroes as religious totems, and today's fans can connect with their favorite celebrities through the star's catalog of work. Whether still alive or already deceased, so long as a big enough archive of the celebrity's work remains, digital avatars can be constructed in their stead using digital projection systems, generative AI, and deepfake technology.

Take the recent fad of deceased singers and entertainers going back out on tours holographic projections of themselves as an example. The projection systems developed by base hologram which made headlines in the middle of the last decade for their spectral presentations of dead celebrities used an effect known as Pepper's ghost. It turns out the technique works just as well with high definition video feeds as it did with the people wiggling [INAUDIBLE] by candlelight.

The modern equivalent is called the Musion EyeLiner. And rather than a transparent sheet of glass, it uses a thin metallized film set at a 45-degree angle towards the audience. It's how the Gorillaz played live at the 2006 Grammy Awards and how Tupac posthumously performed at Coachella in 2012, but the technology is limited by the size of the transparent sheet.

If we're ever going to get the "Jaws 19" signage that "Back to the Future 2" promised us, we're likely going to use arrays of fan projectors like those developed by London-based holographic startup Hypervsn. Holographic fans produce a 3D image that appears to float in mid-air using the principle of persistence of vision. Strips of colored LEDs attached to spinning fan blades with a small computer controlling their flashes leave visible trails as they pass from which the holographic images are constructed. What's more, many of these projector systems now offer streaming capabilities, allowing them to project live interactions rather than merely pre-recorded messages.

Finally, Steve Van Zandt's avatar at the ARHT media holographic cube at Newark International will do more than stare like he's not mad, just disappointed. And the digital TSA agent of tomorrow may do more than repeat rote instructions for passing travelers as the human ones do today.

Getting avatar Van Zandt to sound more like the man it's based on is no longer that much of a difficult feat either. The large language models that power popular chat bots like ChatGPT, Bing Chat, and Bard are already capable of mimicking the writing styles of whatever authors they've been trained on. Advances in the field of deepfake audio, more formally known as speech synthesis, and text to speech AI like Amazon's Polly or Speech Services by Google have all led to a commercialization of synthesized celebrity voiceovers.

- You have reached your destination.

- Where once a choice between Morgan Freeman and Darth Vader reading our Tom Tom directions was considered bleeding edge cool, today companies like Speechify offer voice models from Snoop Dogg, Gwyneth Paltrow, and other celebs or whose estates have licensed their voice models for use.

- Cell structure, ideas about cell structure have changed considerably over the years.

- Even recording artists who haven't given express permission for their voices to be used are finding deepfakes of their work popping up across the internet. For example, Eleven Labs Prime Voice AI software can recreate near-perfect vocal clones from uploaded voice samples.

- Hi, this is Andrew from Engadget. This is not my voice but some dude's voice generated by AI.

- As an actor, I pretend for a living. I play fictitious characters often solving fictitious problems.

I believe that mankind has looked at climate change in that same way as if it were a fiction.

As if pretending that climate change wasn't real would somehow make it go away.

- Accuracy and hallucination issues aren't the only challenges these generative AI ghosts face. Even death itself cannot save us from copyright and trademark litigation.

- You can see where there's already a lot of issues emerging. One will be on, especially for things like ChatGPT, and generative AI tools, there will be questions regarding ownership of any intellectual property on the resulting output of the AI system. That issue has really yet to be defined. I think we're still a ways away from the intellectual property laws fully having an opportunity to address it. I think these technologies have to percolate and develop a little bit and will be some growing pains before we get to meaningful regulation on them.

- Between the breakneck pace of technological advancement with generative AI, the promise of future touchable plasma displays offering hard light style tactile feedback, and Silicon Valley's gleeful disregard towards the negative public cost borne from their disruptive ideas, the arrival of mortal digitized celebrities hawking eczema creams and comforting lies during commercial breaks is now far more likely a matter of when rather than if.

But does it matter for celebrities who are still alive? How will knowing that even after the ravages of time take Tom Hanks from us that at least an interactable digital likeness might continue to exist? Does the visceral knowledge that we'll never truly be rid of Jimmy Fallon empower us to loathe him even more? I say, yes, on both accounts.

- Think that people take a certain kind of pleasure in having access to an approximation of the celebrity, but that experience never fully lives up. If you go and visit the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, then there's a kind of aura, right. There's something intangible, almost magical about experiencing that work of art in person versus seeing a print of it on a poster or on a museum tote bag or a coffee mug that it loses some of its kind of ineffable quality.