Opinion The immortal Trump

(Washington Post illustration; Photos by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images and Fritzchens Fritz/Better Images of AI/GPU shot etched 1/CC-BY 4.0)

Chris Hamilton is a writer, inventor and AI engineer.

Machine learning has created extraordinary tools that aid the producers of fake-human images, voices and videos based on real-life examples. Within a few years, the world will witness the arrival of autonomous digital avatars — moving and sounding with such seeming naturalness that even the people they’re based on will have to think twice. But the cost of implementation will be high. It would be helpful for the person who is the real-life source to have a built-in audience that can be readily monetized.

Donald Trump has an audience.

Recent advances in this technical realm abound. You probably heard last month about the Google engineer who claims that an AI app called LaMDA has become practically sentient. “I know a person when I talk to it,” he said. “It” is a chatbot program that spiders the web for data as it refines its knowledge of how to prattle like a human being. And the result is uncanny. Some people, while chatting with it online, are fooled into thinking it harbors a deep inner life. Mirroring Trump shouldn’t be a stretch.

For decades, mash-ups and “shops” — trick images based on a mishmash of sources — have been both bane and boon to internet life. An example, much beloved by the MAGA crowd, is Trump’s head on the body of Rambo. Such videos, too, in wild combinations, are commonly seen. In the past few years, AI has fashioned astounding deepfakes. We’re so easily duped.

Moreover, speech samples are being adapted to create something new, as deep neural networks take sets of recordings and sprinkle their magic. Give it some text, and the model will output a lifelike sound. FakeYou.com can do this online, as Trump if you choose. The audio simulation is still a bit rough, but it’s plenty entertaining when you have the former president massacring Shakespeare or reciting the Gettysburg Address.

DALL·E 2 is an AI system that creates images from simple descriptions. On the horizon are internet apps that will take a suggestion, no matter how detailed, and give you a picture: “Show me a painting of Donald J. Trump in the style of Gustav Klimt — with golden shoes and a Rolex watch, in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit as he holds up his hands and divides the Red Sea, while leading his people to freedom.” And that software will gladly oblige — with multiple versions! A revolution of the media arts is on the way.

Video games, too, are rapidly evolving, featuring characters of surprising autonomy, synthetic actors whose behavior depends on what they’ve done and whom they’re with — sometimes startling their own architects. Kind of like Trump and the GOP establishment.

This leads, inevitably, to the metaverse. All these modes of simulation will be combined, allowing the crafting of undying digital avatars, with the design quality depending on the availability of plentiful recordings and data. Characteristics of a person’s body mechanics, grammar, voice, facial expressions and responses to stimuli — unique to each individual — will be instilled in the digital dual.

Why Trump? He doesn’t want to die. A ton of data about him exists. He has a hardcore crowd. And they’ll pay. Trump’s first avatar will have human directors, much like an actor on film. But someday soon, contextual intelligence will allow it (him?) the sovereign freedom to act in response to whatever is present in the metaverse.

The essence of Trump will be based on his record of chopper news conferences, tweets, “The Apprentice” episodes, rallies, debates and everything else that was captured on camera or is otherwise known. His image, voice and political essence will be crammed into a matrix. Avatar Trump will hand out political endorsements, respond to the news and talk with real people, in ways barely discernible from Real Trump.

This isn’t some flying-car, jetpack dream. Commercial appeal will drive its development. No one can stop it. But the MAGA public might be able to influence the Trump avatar, which will monitor engagement quality. Do people prefer Regular Trump or Superman Trump? Boorish Trump or Polite Trump?

Avatar Trump could also be personalized to appeal to individual audience members, much as Google and Facebook target users. The Trump model seen by Freedom_Joe_Flintlock will arrive packin’ heat. For extra, it shows up to parties and funerals (augmented-reality glasses supplied).

If the technology is good enough, soon enough, Trump could launch the avatar himself, with rights to his image and likeness owned by his media group, then administered by his estate after he’s gone. Available for use in commercials, video games, political campaigns — any marketable venue. Tasteless? Yes. But undoubtedly more profitable than Trump Steaks.

The future is coming. We’re all gonna die. God’s in his heaven. But Trump is immortal.