THE SCREAMING GHOSTS OF THE INSANE
Grannies as ammo
THREE YEARS AGO, KANYE West celebrated Kim Kardashian’s 40th birthday with a surprise cameo from her dead father. The “hologram”1 required performance capture, motion tracking, and deepfake effects, and surely costs hundreds of thousands of dollars (West enlisted Kaleida, a ‘synthetic media’ company that has produced terrifyingly real avatars of Prince, Elvis, and Bowie). Conveniently, AI-assisted resurrections don’t require photographic niceties like key lighting or compositing. These avatars are supposed to look off. They’re ghosts, after all. This ghost, glowing and ethereal, told his daughter how proud he was of her accomplishments, and assured her that she’d “married the most, most, most, most, most genius man in the whole world.”2
Therapeutically, digital resurrections have mixed results. Eight months before the Kardashian video, a South Korean film crew documented the ‘reunion’ between a grieving mother and the CGI avatar of her dead 7-year old daughter. In the video, “Meeting You,” the viewer watches a distressed woman try and fail to touch her child, who talks from a script and looks like a character in a video game cutscene. It doesn’t seem like a healthy interaction. In 2021’s follow-up video, a widower meets his late wife, resurrected in VR as a moving plastic mannequin (an offscreen actress, harnessed in a motion capture suit, “plays” the wife remotely). The piece concludes with a grieving man standing alone in front of a green screen, staring down at his trembling gloves and sobbing.
For those of us who can’t afford to hire high-end VFX crews, there are apps. Dozens of free or cheap iPhone and Android programs can re-animate any portrait of any dead elder unlucky enough to have left behind a photo. But it’s barely animation. These resurrected people don’t yet have the illusion of agency. All they can currently do is thoughtfully tilt their heads and blink, eyes surveying the edges of the photo or maybe peering past, into what little of your world they can see from their angle. The designers know better than to make the deceased seem sad, or even wistful. Instead, they seem distantly happy, slightly bemused at you having summoned them back to the Earthly plane with such a shameful app.
AMERICAN FORCES IN VIETNAM ran a psychological warfare campaign—'PSYOP’—called Operation Wandering Soul. The idea was to capitalize on the perceived superstitions of the Viet Cong, including the belief that their unburied dead were doomed to roam forever. After dusk hit the jungle, US operatives would blast creepy recordings: funeral music, haunted house sound effects, reverbed babbling and jabbering and guffaws. It’s super creepy stuff (some rumors had the enemy triangulate position from the sound of American loudspeakers).3
The artist and author Trevor Paglen recently coined “PSYOP capitalism” to describe a phenomenon almost upon us. AI makes possible individualized psy-ops. At the same time, the wonder of AI has camouflaged the ruthless capitalism at the core of its being. As Paglen points out, this new organism evolves towards maximizing profit. Think of spam emails and robocalls, only now powered by learning algorithms whose speed and tenacity reach levels you can’t hope to comprehend. The marketing bots of the very near future will know your name. Or the in-jokes you shared with your high school pals. Their avatars will have 40% of your father’s face, or use words you secretly find arousing. Imagine the Terminator recast as an abusive, manipulative friend out to get your passwords and routing number.
TWO YEARS AGO, A New Jersey teenager plunged her car into a canal on the coldest night of the year. She’d been bullied, and the death was ruled a suicide. Covid forced the family to hold an online funeral, which was then zoom-bombed with death threats. It’s hard to imagine a worse scenario than that, but here’s one: a bully of the near-future would be able to terrorize a grieving family with the likeness of the deceased, saying unsayable things, in words crafted for maximum damage. All it would take is one person, anywhere, dispatching a tailored AI for any reason whatsoever. Perhaps such horror could be political, an exponential expansion of the Russian disinformation campaign. Or the reason could be no reason, the delicious ‘lulz’ of malicious chaos that can only be truly savored by sociopaths. In such a world, doxxing and swatting would seem quaint.
Some pranks won’t need pranksters. No reasonable person expects humans to be in the loop on all things AI. Some of these programs will go do their own bad stuff. Two months ago, a GPT-4 program hired a human online to solve a CAPTCHA test. This new phenomenon could be called “stochastic mayhem”—an even darker version of the stochastic terrorism of this era. It will evolve, using the tools of advanced deepfakery, from the current generation of trolls, hackers, grifters, ‘griefers’, and other bad actors who have slowly poisoned the Internet over the last quarter century. Civilization has already proven deeply vulnerable to lone wolf terrorism. How will we now also deal with no-wolf terrorism?
Am I supposed to use quotation marks for this word? The miracle of digital resurrection is different from the lesser miracle of three-dimensional presentation, which generally relies on a centuries-old theater illusion. “Hologram” is one of those disappointing words that once meant something fictional and cool and now means something real and far less cool (like how “hoverboard” started as a promise of flying skateboards and ended in the reality of flammable skateboards). To use the word without irony seems to concede something to the ultrawealthy, like I’m agreeing with the vague idea that real-life billionaires have access to the same super-advanced tech as fictional superhero billionaires.
recoiled in horror, struck dumb at the obscenity that stood before her on two legs and claimed to be a man, claimed to be her father called the gift “a special surprise from heaven.”
When I was 16, I spent a month camping in an equatorial jungle, in Panama. After dusk, everyone kept to their tents. The grunts and hoots and clicks from the surrounding forest surged as soon as the sun set. Although the jungle held three species of monkey, the howlers lived so high in the canopy that we never once saw them. But at night we could hear them; shrieks that started low, rose to sound exactly like a screaming human child and then kept ascending in scale, into the wails of the inhuman. If we’d heard anything like the Ghost Tapes at night, the next morning there would’ve been a dozen terrified teenagers demanding to return home to their mommies and daddies. The average combatants in Vietnam were only a few years older than us.