Wednesday, December 30, 2020

#heavencalling

    Now it’s personal. I’ve just had a phone call from my mom.  Fine, you might think, but it’s sure as hell not fine. She’s been dead 5 years.

    So, I’m a member of the LAPD CSI assigned to cyber crime. The case that landed on my desk a couple of weeks ago started as a complaint that folk were getting phone calls from dead relatives. At first we thought it was a joke. But after a couple of Hollywood celebs and the mayor of Pasadena started getting calls too – it got real serious real fast. The mayor called my chief: he was furious that someone was impersonating his eldest daughter: she died a couple of years ago in a freak surfing accident. It was only when the chief explained that it wasn’t a person that had called him, but an AI programmed to impersonate his daughter, that he calmed down a bit. Just a bit mind: according to my boss what he said went along the lines of “find out who these sons-of-bitches programmers are, I’m gonna sue the hell out of them”.

    Deepfakes have been around for 5 years or so. Mostly videos doctored with some famous actor’s face substituted for a slightly less famous face. Tom Cruise as spiderman – that kinda thing; mostly harmless.  After the mayor’s call the chief called a departmental meeting. She explained that – according to the DA – impersonation is not a misdemeanour: “Hell if it was that would make the whole entertainment industry a criminal enterprise.” That caused a cynical chuckle across the room. She went on, “nor is creating a fake AI based on a real person.” “Of course people are upset and angry – who wouldn’t be when they get a call from someone dear to them who also happens to be deceased – but upsetting people isn’t a crime.” 

    She looked at me. “Frank, what have you got so far?” “Not much chief”, I replied, “each call seems to be coming from a different number – my guess is they’re one-time numbers”. “Any idea who’s behind this?” she asked. “No – but since no-one is demanding money – my guess would be AI genius college kids doing this for a joke, or maybe their dissertations.” “Of course” I added, “they would need to be scraping the personal data from somewhere to construct the fakes, but so much hacked data is around on the dark web that wouldn’t be too hard.” “Ok good”, she said, “start talking to some college professors”. 

    Two days later I had the call.

    “Hello Frankie, it’s mom.”

    “Mom? But you’ve been gone 5 years.”

    “I know son. I just wanted to call to tell you I love you.”

    “But. Goddam. You sound just like Mom.”

    “Aren’t you pleased to hear from me Frankie?”

    “Yes... No. This isn’t right.”

    “How is Josie doing? And Taylor – she must’ve started college by now?”

    “Yes Josie is good, and Taylor’s ... no dammit I’m not gonna talk to a computer program.”

    “Aw, don’t be mad with your Mom.”

    At that point I hung up. But Jesus it was hard. I knew it wasn’t my Mom but the temptation to stay on the call just to hear her voice again was just overwhelming. It took me awhile to calm down. It’s only in the last year that I started to get over her passing. That call brought it all back: the pain, the anger she had been taken too soon. We were real close.

    This fake was good – they had my Mom’s voice down to a tee – but how? Mom was a high school teacher not a celebrity. She wasn’t big on social media. Sure she used Facebook – who doesn’t – but that doesn’t record voice. Just about everything else mind – that’s where they would have gotten family names and relationships. Then I remembered that we bought her one of those smart speakers a year or so before she passed away. Arthritis made it hard for her to move around so we put in the speaker so she could make voice calls, listen to music or turn on the TV just by asking. She loved it. 

    Then the story broke in the press. Twitter was full of it: #heavencalling and #deadphone were just two of the hashtags; none of them even remotely funny to me. The pundits were all over the newscasts: AI experts gleefully explaining the technology while expressing a dishonest kind of smirking dismay “...of course no AI professional could possibly condone this kind of misuse.” Obviously they hadn’t had the call. 

    Of course the news channels also interviewed folk who had been called. Some were outraged, but more were very happy that they had been ‘chosen’ for a call from heaven. One lady was so pleased to have had a call from her late husband: “It was so wonderful to hear from Jimmy – to talk about old times and know that he’s happy in heaven”. Well I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. The church pastors they interviewed were indignant. “The devil’s work” was the general tone. One even described it as ‘artificial witchcraft’.  They had good reason to be unhappy, seeing as they have exclusive rights to the intercession business.

    A day later I had an email back from one of the AI Profs at Caltech. I called him straight away and he told me he had a pretty good idea who might be behind this “deeply unethical AI” as he put it. A couple of star students had been working on what one of them had told him was a ‘really cool NLP project’. NLP – that’s natural language processing. He told me that he had already disabled their accounts on the Caltech supercomputer. This kind of real-time conversational AI uses huge amounts of computing power.

    A few hours later the chief and I are in the Dean’s office with the Professor and his two students. In the students I saw a younger me: bright but with that naïve innocence that blesses only those for whom nothing bad has ever happened. 

    My chief explained to these two young men that, since no crime had been committed, we would not be pressing charges. But, she stressed, “What you did was not without consequence. The mayor and his wife were deeply distressed to receive a call from someone they thought was their deceased daughter. And my colleague here was mad as hell when he had a call from his late Mom.” From the look in their eyes they obviously had no idea they had set up a heaven call to a cop.  

    Then the Dean gave them one hell of a dressing down. At one point one of the students tried to interject that some of the recipients of the heaven calls had been very happy to be called, at which point the Prof stopped him immediately. “No. Regardless of how people reacted, your AI was a deception. And an egregious one too, as it exploited the vulnerability of grief.” Then he added, “Something that in time you too will experience.” The Dean told them that they should count themselves very lucky that the school had decided not to expel them, on condition that they personally apologise to everyone who had received a heaven call, starting right now with Officer Frank Aaronavitch here. After a very gracious apology, which I accepted, the Prof added that he would be requiring them to submit year papers on the ethics of their heaven calling AI.

    Six months have passed. Heaven calling blew over pretty quickly. Then I noticed a piece in the tech press about a new start up – Heavenly AI – looking for VC. Sure enough the two founders are the same students we saw in the Deans’s office at Caltech. The article claims the company has an ethics driven business model. Great I thought. Then cynical me kicked in; give it six months and these guys are gonna get bought out by Facebook. Heaven forbid.


Previous stories: 

The Gift (2016) 
Word Perfect (2020) 

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