In the Future, the Holocaust Is Just Another Hologram

The last living Holocaust survivors are dying. Can technology keep their testimonies alive?

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Apr 25 2017, 2:44pm

USC Shoa Foundation

Pinchas Gutter tells me that when he was eight years old, the Nazis put him and his family on a train from their home in Łódź, Poland to the Warsaw ghetto. They stayed there for two years before they were taken to the Majdanek concentration camp, where every member of his family was murdered in the gas chambers. Only he survived.

I press a button, lean into the microphone and tell him: "I don't believe the gas chambers existed."

Gutter sits there and listens to me patiently. He crossfades from an idle animation to his response.

"To someone who has spent five years in hell—a living witness—[people who say] that this did not happen...I believe that they are just as bad as the perpetrators," he said. "Every one of them should be taken to a court of law because they are in contempt of humanity itself."

I don't need to be convinced, but this is a persuasive answer from Gutter, who is a real person I've never really met. I know him only through the interactive New Dimensions in Testimony installation made by the USC Shoah Foundation. The idea is that when Gutter passes away, his testimony and the memory of the Holocaust will live on through this virtual copy.

Defending the truth is going to become much more difficult when there isn't a survivor around to roll up his sleeve and show the numbers tattooed on his arm.

Gutter's entire body is displayed on a giant, vertical, flat screen TV. When I push a button to talk, my question is processed by speech recognition and natural language processing to fetch the right answer from a library of over 1,900 video clips of Gutter, who's in his mid-80s today. The clips were recorded over 20 hours of interviews, so Gutter is able to answer almost any question about his life, including a whole line of interrogations about Holocaust denial.

The videos were captured with 120 4K cameras from all angles in order to future-proof Gutter's testimony, and he's not only able to respond to questions via a screen. At the Tribeca Film Festival last weekend, USC premiered a version of the survivor's story where he walks viewers in VR through the Majdanek concentration camp. In the future, USC hopes to turn Gutter into a responsive hologram that can be rolled into classrooms.

This obsessive documentation of survivors is happening now because Holocaust remembrance is on the verge of a new and frightening stage of its stated mission to never forget. Soon, Gutter and other remaining survivors—witnesses, as Gutter called them—will die. When they are gone, it will be up to our generation, the people who knew the people who were there, to pass the torch. And when we are gone, the mission to never forget will become much harder.

I spend a lot of time thinking about this because I spend a lot of my time following Nazis on the internet. If I want to feel really bad, I go to r/holocaust, which—despite its name—is a Holocaust denial subreddit. This isn't some triple-ironic Nazi meme farm, which may or may not be sincere about its anti-Semitism, but an active and deadly serious community of people who promote the conspiracy that Gutter and survivors like him are liars.

"Nothing is going to replace a human being."

We are already at the point where the White House has brazenly minimized the extermination of Jews in the Holocaust. Defending the truth is going to become much more difficult when there isn't a survivor around to roll up his sleeve and show the numbers tattooed on his arm.

The idea behind New Dimensions in Testimony, which so far has recorded 12 Holocaust survivors, is that it will help keep their stories alive after their deaths by leveraging new technologies.

"90 percent of people leave thinking they actually talked to him on Skype," Heather Maio Smith, who designed this project, told me. "It's not our intention to fool anyone. People will understand it's a video testimony, but they do get drawn into the conversation and lose sight of the fact that he's not actually there."

At the least, it is an effective way to present these stories in the same way all good chatbots are effective: It allowed me to non-linearly ask for the information I wanted instead of passively absorbing a prepared presentation. It's stilted and robotic, but it almost felt like a conversation.

The Illinois Holocaust Museum will be the first location to host a permanent installation of New Dimension in Testimony starting in October, but I also got to see a prototype of an online version that anyone will be able to access in the future.

It's smart and useful to capture these testimonies with the most detail possible while we still can, but will Gutter's chatbot self stay safe from the types of abuse we saw hurled at Microsoft's Tay? Twenty years from now, will people believe any mediated testimony at all, given that we are rapidly approaching the point where computer-generated human voice and facial expressions are indistinguishable from reality?

One concerning detail to me is that USC Shoah Foundation research found that students who talked to the simulation felt "less constrained" than they did when speaking to real survivors.

"It's a different experience," executive director of the USC Shoa Foundation and Maio's husband Stephen Smith told me. "The same students are much more vocal why they interact with the system. The barrier comes down."

Image: USC Shoa Foundation

On its face, that seems like a good thing: We want students to be curious and ask questions. But "less constrained," mediated interactions to me also sounds a lot like the beginning the toxic, dissociative behavior that defines so many online interactions. The reason Holocaust survivors are so effective when they pay visits to classrooms, for example, is that they are literally living history. It's hard to cast doubt on their stories when the person is right there. Will the same reverence be there when that person is mediated through a hologram?

The quality of this kind of documentation is invaluable. Even without its interactive elements, New Dimension in Testimony is doing important work. But we need to be wary of any technology that offers simple solutions to intractable problems. It wouldn't be the first time that technology falsely offered us a way to talk to the dead. New Dimension in Testimony, at least, is aware of its limitations.

"Nothing is going to replace a human being," Smith said. "We're fixated on immortality and we try to androidize ourselves, but there's nothing like a human being. When a human being is gone, that's it."