How AI is helping to recreate childhood memories

What do you do with a cherished memory that has no record — not even a photo or a video?  This Spanish company, Domestic Data Streamers, might help. They’ve harnessed artificial intelligence to turn fading recollections into visual or “synthetic” memories. The end product isn’t quite a photo — or art. But it’s helping people reconnect with their pasts.

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In the 1950s, when Emelia Lozano Gonzalez was 7 years old, her baby sister Cecilia got sick with double pneumonia. Antibiotics were hard to come by back then, and her 22-month-old sister died. 

“After, I remember going into the fields with friends,” she said, “collecting flowers for my sister’s funeral. That’s my memory.”

Gonzalez has carried around this memory only in her head for the last 65 years — until now. Today, she can open her wallet and pull out what looks like a black-and-white photo of a little girl in a field of flowers, with another kid in the background. 

“Look what they made me,” she said. “I got so emotional when I first saw it because it looks so much like me.” 

But it isn’t her, exactly.

Gonzalez provided this information to a Spanish company called Domestic Data Streamers, which then uses artificial intelligence to create a so-called “synthetic memory.” 

Upon closer reflection, the image is an imperfect composite of the memory — it shows some distortion in the faces, blurry limbs and an ever-so-slightly stitched-together landscape. 

But it doesn’t have to be perfect because memories themselves are vague and change constantly over time, said Domestic Data Streamers’ Marina Olivares.

“Memory is [a] construction in a way,” Olivares said, “because, sometimes, we have a memory of something that our parents have explained that happened to us, and then, we generate an image of that, but we didn’t really recall it before.” 

Domestic Data Streamers uses artificial intelligence to create an artificial memory.

In keeping with the fuzzy nature of remembrance, synthetic memories have a dreamy quality built into them. 

One of the company’s designers, Pau Garcia Sanchez, said they’re after an emotional response from people. Too much detail or realism, he said, and our intellects start to nitpick over small details, like the color of a childhood couch. 

The less-than-real imaging is also a safeguard.

“The potential misuse of this technology [is] to create fake news and fake memories, so this is something that we should acknowledge, as any technology can be used and can be put for bad practices,” he said. 

Domestic Data Streamers is funded in part by Google Arts & Culture. Google itself has been sued by consumers for alleged misuse of users’ personal data. But controversy aside, the synthetic memories, Sanchez said, are being offered for free to vulnerable populations, such as people living with dementia. The synthetic memories were used to help people remember real events.

“You feel afraid when you feel that you are losing your memory. Finding something that feels familiar is such a relief, so connecting to a part of your past where you’re safe; it’s giving people a lot of relief,” Sanchez said. 

The process is free and participants must be willing to share a lot of information upfront during the first part of the process — the interview. 

As the participant shares a memory, an assistant types keywords into a laptop. They never take a photo of the participant or ask for one. Everything is based on the memory described by the participant — such as arriving each summer at a family lake house. 

After about 20 minutes, the participant is left holding a Polaroid-style image, which reflects the shared memory. It’s not an exact replica, but it’s enough to trigger an emotional response.

People usually smile when they see their synthetic memory,  even when it’s a sad one, like picking flowers for a sister’s funeral, Domestic Data Streamers said.

“It’s a fond memory, but also a tough one … one that’s just so hard to bear,” said Gonzales, the participant who lost her baby sister. “But now, somehow, having the synthetic memory is helping me to accept it as part of my life.” 

After all these years, a synthetic rendering of a memory based on 65 years of remembering and remembering has brought Gonzalez some peace. She said she’d stick the photo to her fridge with a magnet.

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