As the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This warning has quickly become a staple of history classes around the world, and is why it’s so important to acknowledge the wrongful actions of our past. However, reading about genocide and war in a history book isn’t quite as powerful as hearing it talked about by veterans and survivors. That’s why assemblies and speeches tend to be so powerful—there’s something about listening to someone who lived through a particular piece of history that makes it much more personal and real.
One of the unfortunate realities of this type of storytelling, though, is that the stories disappear as survivors grow older and pass away. That’s a sad reality we’re coming up on with Holocaust survivors. Hitler anointed himself as Fuhrer in 1934 and the Holocaust ended in 1945, making even the youngest survivors in their 80s and 90s today. As someone who has seen a Holocaust survivor speak about his experiences in person, it’s upsetting to think that we could forever lose such valuable people in a few years.
However, thanks to the USC Shoah Foundation and new technological innovations, perhaps that doesn’t have to be the case. The USC Shoah Foundation was founded by Steven Spielberg in 1994 to document first-hand accounts of the Holocaust for future generations. Since then, the foundation has been archiving video testimonies of 55,000 Holocaust and genocide survivors. Preserving those stories is a wonderful idea on its own, but now technology is taking that preservation to a new level by allowing viewers to actually interact with the survivors.
In her article for CNN Tech, Sara Ashley O’Brien describes a digital encounter she had with Pinchas Gutter, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor. Apparently, Gutter was one of the first volunteers to participate in the new video formatting. In 2014, he sat through more than 20 hours of interviews and answered about 1,500 questions, all of which were recorded by 116 cameras. That Q&A session allowed the foundation to create Gutter’s digital persona, which uses speech recognition and natural language processing to recognize questions and then deliver responses.
A beta version of Gutter’s digital persona has been available at museums since 2015 and, as more people talk with him, he becomes smarter. Developers can tweak the technology based on how people interact with him, allowing them to improve his understanding of questions.
“The purpose of this interactive conversation is to allow the user to explore [Gutter's] experience with their own curiosity. To get a deeper sense of empathy for that experience because it connects to them as an individual rather than being an abstract,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of USC Shoah Foundation.
According to O’Brien, speaking with Gutter felt very similar to taking part in a video call—she was able to ask him personal questions, and the answers he gave were heart wrenching and impactful. However, the foundation hopes to make these digital survivors even more personalized and realistic in the future, with plans to create VR experiences and holograms in the works. Most importantly, Smith said that the recordings have been “future proofed,” so that they can be transferred to new formats as technology advances. This ensures that these valuable stories and insights will never be lost, even as the physical people pass away.
“We have to do it now or it won't be recorded for the benefit of the future,” Smith said. “We have a race against time ... You can't replace a human being, but what this does is close the gap a little and create that intimacy and empathy that you might get talking to a real human being.”
The foundation’s motives could not be any more on point. Like the saying goes, history has a tendency to repeat itself when it is ignored. Needless to say, the Holocaust was a horrific event that we can never forget, and always need to learn from. Around the world, humans destroy others simply because they’re different in one way or another. Being afraid of what we don’t understand may be human nature, unfortunately, but by paying attention to the past and listening to the stories of these survivors, technology may help us overcome that flaw.