AI project introduces adult faces of children who disappeared during Argentina’s military dictatorship

If a baby were taken from its parents four decades ago during Argentina’s military dictatorship, what would that person look like today?

Argentine publicist Santiago Barros has attempted to answer this question using artificial intelligence to create images of what the children of parents who disappeared during the dictatorship might look like as adults.

Almost every day, Barros uploads these images to an Instagram account called iabuelas, which is a portmanteau in Spanish for artificial intelligence (IA) and grandmother or abuela — taken from the well-known activist group Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, which searches for missing children.

“We’ve seen photos of most of the disappeared, but we don’t have photos of their children, the children who were stolen,” Barros told The Associated Press. “I noticed that these people had no faces.”

During Argentina’s bloody dictatorship from 1976 to 1983, the military systematically stole babies from political dissidents, who were imprisoned or often executed without a trace and disposed of. The babies were often raised by families associated with or ideologically linked to the dictatorship as if they were their own.

Using an app called Midjourney, Barros combines photos of missing fathers and mothers from the Grandmothers website’s public archive to create images of what their children’s faces might look like today as adults. For each combination, the app will show two female and two male possibilities. Barros then selects the image of each gender that appears most realistic.

The project is not intended to replace the grandmothers group’s efforts to identify grandchildren through DNA testing. Instead, Barros says, the aim is to awaken the conscience of those over 46 who may have doubts about their origins, and to serve as a reminder of the more than four decades that grandmothers spent trying to track down these children close.

The grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo estimate that around 500 children were snatched from their parents during the dictatorship. The group has located 133 grandchildren through genetic analysis.

The group values ​​Barros’ initiative as a way to raise awareness of the children who were stolen or kidnapped during the dictatorship. However, they warn that the only infallible tool for linking these people to their families of origin is DNA testing, which would continue to be performed by the National Genetic Data Bank, which they helped establish in 1987.

In addition to working with photographs from the grandmothers’ archives, Barros also uses photographic material provided by interested parties.

In some cases, those who accessed iabuelas noticed a tendency towards standardization in the images, raising questions about their approximation to reality. But in other cases, families searching for a lost relative have been shocked by the resemblance of those faces to blood relatives.

This was the case for Matías Ayastuy, who contacted Barros and provided him with photos of his missing parents to see what a possible brother or sister would look like. His mother, Marta Bugnone, was kidnapped in 1977 when she was pregnant. By combining the image of her and his father, Jorge Ayastuy, the AI ​​tool was able to produce some impressive results.

“A lot of people think that the male image is similar to me. But what brought out something very, very strong for me was the feminine. I found a very striking resemblance to a cousin of mine,” Ayastuy said.

In the month since Barros’ initiative was launched, no cases have come to light of an adult having looked like one of his pictures and then embarking on a formal identification process.

All images of the missing parents and their possible children are uploaded to the Instagram account, with a note that iabuelas is an “unofficial artistic project” and that results generated by artificial intelligence may be inaccurate.

Pedro Sandoval, a grandson identified in 2006, initially welcomed Barros’ initiative but later decided it was imperfect, apparently relying too much on “standardized patterns” of people with European characteristics. His mother Liliana Fontana and father Pedro Sandoval are among the 30,000 missing people counted by humanitarian organizations.

Barros acknowledged that the app may be skewed, but pointed out that many of the disappeared people have European ancestry and live in a country with heavy European immigration.

The grandmothers don’t want the AI ​​campaign to create false expectations for those who find similarities with the generated images, and therefore advise to take the campaign with caution.

“It’s a campaign that shows simulations about possible faces of sons and daughters of the disappeared, but we know that people are much more than 50 percent of their parents and that foreign applications are associated with genotypes of their populations,” the group said in a statement in late July. “Therefore the results are not correct.”

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