Deceased singers brought back through technology
By Park Han-sol
In the early 1990s, Choi Eun-soon did not know much about the songs of Korean folk rock singer Kim Kwang-seok despite his immense popularity. Now, at the age of 51, she often enjoys listening to his sentimental melodies and poetic lyrics.
"With him gone forever, it was heartbreaking to realize that I would never be able to listen to his voice in person. But the fact that I can see him and listen to his music through artificial intelligence (AI) technology brought back all those wonderful feelings," Choi said.
For fans like Choi, holographic re-creation technology is a blessing.
In December 2020, cable music channel Mnet presented AI-generated holographic performances of the late singers Kim Hyun-sik (1958-90) and Turtleman (1970-2008), who both died tragically young in their 30s. It was part of Mnet's music project "One More Time."
The same month, a hologram of rocker Shin Hae-chul (1968-2014) appeared on stage alongside K-pop stars in Big Hit Labels' "2021 New Year's Eve Live" concert. A trailer for an SBS pilot program titled "Match of the Century! AI vs Human," scheduled for broadcast Jan. 29, also surprised fans as the clip starred a virtually rendered Kim Kwang-seok.
Holograms of celebrities have made public appearances in the past, including virtual re-creations of Tupac Shakur and Michael Jackson which performed at the 2012 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and 2014 Billboard Music Awards, respectively.
However, the latest AI technology allows for more than simple reenactment of past recitals. The musicians' image and voice can be recreated, which means the AI-rendered singers can perform other artists' songs regardless of when they were released. This allowed the hologram of Kim Hyun-sik to perform Park Jin-young's "Behind You" (1994) and Kim Kwang-seok's hologram to sing Kim Bum-soo's "I Miss You" (2002).
As such advanced technology seeps into the field of music, some experts have expressed their belief that there are potential benefits for pop culture. But they also advise caution.
Music critic Lim Jin-mo recognized the contributions AI can make in terms of technology and musical arrangement. "It can help us better detect plagiarism by providing us with credible statistical results regarding content similarity. It can also aid the process of establishing a framework for compositions and musical arrangements," he said.
The question of ethics inevitably emerges as people contemplate how digitally resurrecting the dead through AI technology for the benefit of popular culture can affect the value of human dignity and emotion. Last month, the Ministry of Science and ICT announced for the first time ethical standards for AI development that place value on human dignity and public interest.
Lim stressed that the AI-rendered songs ― a result of the input of an extensive amount of data to get the best average of rhythm and melody ― cannot truly bear the quality and value of music created by people.
"Music is like a warm shaking of someone's hand or a breath that people share with each other. And because the same song released in 1969 and 2019 can have a vastly different public reception, music should consciously reflect the people and the atmosphere of that particular era," he said. "I want to see a singing man, not a singing machine."
Pop music commentator Seo Jeong Min-gap voiced concerns that the industry is commercializing public nostalgia by turning the dead into products.
"Some things are better left behind, buried and kept in our memory. If we keep reviving the stars through AI, then they don't get to have closure. It's like adding preservative. And the feeling of longing and nostalgia is only possible when there remains at least some distance, but use of such technology may exhaust that sentiment," he told The Korea Times.
He also urged contemplating and focusing more on the process of obtaining the consent of the bereaved families.
"The family members may feel good and moved to see the performers onstage again, but it can also be emotionally burdensome for them in the long term. It's possible it could become too much for them to handle. The responsibility, therefore, should lie with the producers and broadcasters to effectively manage the process."
Other experts pointed out the advantages and disadvantages of re-creative holographic technology.
"With such technology, producing immersive and realistic content will be much more feasible. Also us similar technology, actors can be rendered who look just like the originals will be able to partake in stunts for special effects or imaginary scenes that cannot be done by real people," said Jeon Chang-bae, chairman of the Korea Artificial Intelligence Ethics Association (KAIEA).
At the same time, he cautioned against indiscriminate manipulation as the same technology could be married to that used to create deepfake material ― specifically to be used for fraud, or the production of porn videos that purport to "feature" well known stars. If the technology becomes mainstream and the number of virtually rendered people increases rapidly, it could also make it difficult to confirm the true identity of the individual, especially for the sectors that require certification, including banking and voting, he explained.
In terms of enacting policy regarding AI technology, Lee Hee-dae, professor of media and communication at Kwangwoon University, called for flexible legal interpretation and the establishment of social consent.
"Each time new technology becomes commercialized, it is often the case where the existing law or regulations are not up to par to handle such issues," he said. "If they attempt to regulate each individual incident that occurs as a result of the particular technology, then when something else takes place, they have to come up with yet another law, and so on. Therefore, they instead need to focus on establishing a bigger picture and social consent and expanding the legal interpretation to flexibly deal with such issues."