Voices of the dead: shooting victims plead for gun reform with AI-voice messages

AI SaaS

Six years ago today, Joaquin Oliver was killed in a hallway outside his Florida classroom, one of 17 students and staff murdered in the worst high school shooting in the US. On Wednesday, lawmakers in Washington DC will hear his voice, recreated by artificial intelligence, in phone calls demanding to know why they’ve done nothing to tackle the plague of gun violence.

“It’s been six years and you’ve done nothing. Not a thing to stop all the shootings that have happened since,” the message from Oliver, who was 17 when he died in the 2018 Valentine’s Day’s tragedy at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school, says.

“I’m back today because my parents used AI to recreate my voice to call you. Other victims like me will be calling too, again and again, to demand action. How many calls will it take for you to care? How many dead voices will you hear before you finally listen?”

Oliver is one of six people who lost their lives to firearms whose voices are about to be heard again, calling for action in an innovative online gun reform campaign launching today called The Shotline.

Parkland victim Joaquin Oliver

‘How many dead voices will you hear before you finally listen?’

A project of two activist groups formed in the aftermath of Parkland, and the creative communications agency MullenLowe, it harnesses AI technology to generate direct messages from the shooting victims themselves.

The voices are “trained” by deep machine learning from audio clips supplied by their families. The resulting recordings are ready to be delivered straight to those in Congress with the power to do something about gun violence. Visitors to the website enter their zip code and choose a message to be sent to their elected representative.

“We can all hear our kids’ voices in our heads. Why shouldn’t lawmakers have to hear them too?” said Mike Song, whose 15-year-old son Ethan died in an accident involving an unsecured gun at a friend’s house in Connecticut in January 2018.

Ethan’s message, like Oliver’s, is forthright: “Kids like me are dying every day. It’s time to act. Time to pass laws that protect kids from unsecured guns. Helping people is your job after all, so pass responsible gun laws or we’ll find someone who will.”

Other voices recreated for the Shotline project are Uziyah Garcia, a 10-year-old victim of the 2022 Uvalde elementary school shooting in Texas; Akilah Dasilva, 23, killed in the 2018 Waffle House shooting in Tennessee; Jaycee Webster, a 20-year-old shot and killed by intruders in his Maryland home in 2017; and Mike Baughan, who killed himself in 2014 with a gun he was able to purchase in 15 minutes.

The death of Baughan, who was experiencing depression, sparked a campaign that led to the passing of Maryland’s first red flag gun laws.

That Oliver’s voice is spearheading the campaign, six years to the day of his killing, is deliberate. One of the two groups behind the initiative is March for Our Lives, the activist group formed by the Stoneman Douglas students that ignited a global protest movement after Parkland.

The campaign Shotline uses AI to generate voice messages from victims of gun violence. Photograph: The Shotline

The other is Change the Ref, founded by the teenager’s parents, Manny and Patricia Oliver, who have been relentless in their advocacy for gun reform since their son was murdered.

“We wanted it to be a powerful message,” Patricia Oliver said. “Joaquin has his own energy, his own image, it keeps him alive. I am so proud of Joaquin, he’s the engine that pushes us.”

She admits the process that culminated in the 56-second recreation of her son’s voice was emotionally taxing. The Olivers trawled their own cellphones and computers for videos including Joaquin speaking, and asked his sister Andrea, other relatives and his girlfriend Tori to do the same.

“Getting his exact voice was difficult because of the noises in the background,” she said. “In one video, he’s in the pool and we’re talking, but the sound of the water was blocking it.”

Ultimately, they assembled enough clips for engineers to work with, and received the final “draft” after a lengthy, back and forth fine-tuning process.

“When we played it, it was incredible, a shock, there were many different emotions. We’d been listening to these videos all this time of Joaquin talking in the past, and now he’s talking about a today situation, something very current,” she said.

“I know that this is just an illusion, this is not true. But in that moment you forget about what you’re listening to, why you are listening, and you just wish from the bottom of your heart he can just say, ‘Hi Mummy, how are you?’ one more time.”

Kristin Song, Ethan’s mother, said she experienced similar painful emotions on hearing her son “speaking” again six years after his death.

“It brings you back to that day, the last words your child had with you before walking out of your life, basically,” she said.

“I just sat and sobbed, honestly, just because you know he’s never going to come back. But what the Olivers, and my husband, and others like us have in common is that every day we get out there and fight to honor our children, and are really out there fighting for your children and your grandchildren.”

The Songs are pressing federal lawmakers to pass a version of Connecticut’s Ethan’s Law, requiring the safe storage of firearms in family homes.

“We’ve made a commitment not to stop until we can kind of create a cultural shift in this country where it becomes second nature for gun owners to secure their weapons,” said Kristen Song. “You’d think that as the coffins of our dead children continue to stack up, that would be enough, but it’s really falling on deaf ears when it comes to mainly the Republicans in Congress.”

To create the voices and calls, MullenLowe, the marketing communications agency best-known for the talking babies in E*Trade’s Super Bowl commercials, partnered with AI specialists Edisen, with teams working on the project in the US and Sweden.

Snippets of sound “trained” for speech patterns and tonality were fed through the ElevenLabs generative voice AI platform, and the reconstructed voices produced the audio calls from text-to-speech scripts.

“There’s a lot of discussion going on with AI right now but this is a beautiful example of what it actually can achieve, a very human output,” Mirko Lempert, Edisen’s Stockholm-based AI creative designer, said.

“The project was very emotional and showed how much our worlds are different, because in my country we’re not exposed to those kinds of [gun violence] situations that much. It was a wake-up call.”

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission banned robocalls using AI-generated voices following an incident in which Joe Biden’s voice was mimicked in fake calls to New Hampshire voters.

MullenLowe says the Shotline calls are exempt because they are not autodialed, are made to landlines, and provide a callback number.

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