Talking with the dead

Black and white photo of three men standing in front of the HMS Sibyl stationed in a dry dock in Malta for repairs

We’ve been hearing a whole lot about AI recently and some of the more eerie qualities of its potential. It’s been used to animate photographs, bring documents to life as something you can converse with, and much more that I’m sure you’ve been seeing around. I’ve been keeping a passive eye on the progress that’s been happening frighteningly quick and keeping myself up to date with how to best use the tools at my disposal, but my first step into actually producing an AI tool occurred last month.

I’m not going to give too many details because it hasn’t launched yet and I’m not going to get your hopes up about being able to develop your own opinion yet—the time will come, don’t worry. At that point I’ll update this post. And I’m not going to ramble too long, as many others more qualified than myself have said much more and much better than I can, but I do have thoughts I want to share. Part of one of my projects for this summer was to find and develop data to feed to an AI chatbot that would then use the supplied data and transcripts from oral history interviews to pose as a person from the past and answer questions from the public.

On the very surface, I want to say “oh my god, so cool, technology can do so much!” but on the other hand, I feel so intensely disturbed by the ability to programme artificial intelligence to pose as a deceased person, taking their identity and sharing information about their life as far as data can provide insight to it. Is that not terrifying? For me, if I saw an exhibit that allowed you to “talk with Carravagio,” I don’t think that’s something that would pique my interest. I think I’d wonder about the ethics of artificially resuscitating the dead for a flashy conversation piece.

Part of what’s enjoyable and appealing about the study of history (at least to me) is the opportunity to think critically and parse limited information. If all I know about a 17th century individual is that he was a man, aged 30, Catholic, imprisoned for larceny, and now a convict forced to work on the galleys away from his wife and three children, I understand the basics of this man’s situation, but on a core level, I know nothing about him. I will never know his thoughts, his motivations, the strength of his relationships or his faith. As a historian, it’s not my job to fill in the blanks with possibilities or likelihoods—it’s my job to find and present the facts and see where that leads next. It’s my job to be curious and try my best to find the facts to fill in the blanks, but if I can’t, I have to accept that and say that it is unknown. Part of being a historian, especially one not focused on the contemporary, is accepting that I will never know or understand the people I study, and working with that fact to tell these stories as best as I can without embellishments. It’s a valuable lesson to accept that you will never understand anything to the fullest extent and know that that’s not only alright, but actually good in some ways.

About the Author

Niġel Klemenčič-Puglisevich

MA Public History student at the University of Western Ontario.

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