Make Tom Hanks do your bidding with this unnerving digital puppet

How many photos of you are there online? Probably not as many as Tom Hanks, and if your worst nightmare involves someone making a digital puppet of you speak George W Bush’s words, then that’s a lucky break, because researchers from the University of Washington have done just that to poor old Tom.

Machine learning algorithms mined the internet for pictures of Hanks and other celebrities including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sir Ian McKellen, Piers Morgan, Daniel Craig and Barack Obama, and created a digital puppet of each face, allowing the digital version to mimic the mannerisms you associate with each one with alarming accuracy. The video below shows the process in action, along with digital Tom imitating his real life counterpart:

You might already find this slightly unnerving, but the press release from the university manages to dial the discomfort up a notch, with senior author Kemelmacher-Shlizerman suggesting a novel use for the technology: “You might one day be able to put on a pair of augmented reality glasses and there is a 3D model of your mother on the couch.”

Having relatives magically appear nearby is one thing, but it gets really interesting when you put words in the digital puppet’s mouth. How can you make president Obama deliver a speech a Republican audience would approve of? Make his digital puppet copy a George W Bush interview:

“Imagine being able to have a conversation with anyone you can’t actually get to meet in person — LeBron James, Barack Obama, Charlie Chaplin — and interact with them,” said co-author Steve Seitz, professor of computer science and engineering at Washington University. “We’re trying to get there through a series of research steps. One of the true tests is can you have them say things that they didn’t say, but it still feels like them? This paper is demonstrating that ability.”

Hmm, LeBron James, Barack Obama and Charlie Chaplin… one of these is not like the others. Even though Chaplin died in 1977, does this mean his acting days might not be over? Theoretically, but there would be a number of legal – and ethical – problems with that.

Given the research was funded by Google, Samsung and Intel, we’d imagine the immediate uses would be a little less controversial, but maybe you’ll be able to have a chat with Mr Hanks through your Google Cardboard or Gear VR sooner than anyone thought possible. What a time to be alive.

READ THIS NEXT: Virtual Reality reporting could be the future of reporting, but it’s an ethical minefield.

Image: Dick Thomas Johnson, used under Creative Commons

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