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Gun violence killed them. Now, their voices will lobby Congress to do more using AI

Flowers, candles and mementos sit outside one of the makeshift memorials at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida just days after the deadly shooting in 2018.
RHONA WISE
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AFP via Getty Images
Flowers, candles and mementos sit outside one of the makeshift memorials at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida just days after the deadly shooting in 2018.

Updated February 14, 2024 at 4:07 PM ET

"It's been six years, and you've done nothing," Joaquin Oliver's voice echoed across the U.S. Capitol grounds Wednesday. "Not a thing to stop all the shootings that have continued to happen since."

On Feb. 14, 2018, Oliver started another day as a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. By the end, he was one of 17 people murdered at the school in a mass shooting that sparked a worldwide, youth-led movement on gun violence.

Now, people can hear his voice again.

Oliver's audio is one of six messages generated by artificial intelligence meant to resemble different voices of individuals killed by guns in incidents over the past decade. It's part of an initiative led by March For Our Lives, the gun control organization borne out of the Parkland shooting, and Change The Ref, a group started by Oliver's parents, vocal advocates Manny and Patricia Oliver.

The messages will appear on the Shotline, a new online platform that the groups created, where users can individually send the AI-generated audio directly to the offices of members of Congress, demanding further action on gun violence prevention. The initiative was announced in front of the Capitol Wednesday, the sixth anniversary of the Parkland shooting.

"I'm back today because my parents used AI to recreate my voice to call you," Oliver's message continued. "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? Every day your inaction creates more voices. If you fail to act now, we'll find somebody who will."

Other AI-recreated voices include 10-year-old Uzi Garcia, who died in the 2022 mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas; 15-year-old Ethan Song who was killed by an unsecured handgun in a friends home in 2018; Jaycee Webster, a 20-year-old killed in his home by a lone gunman; Akila Dasilva, a 23-year-old who died in a mass shooting at a Waffle House in Tennessee in 2018; and Mike Baughan, who died by suicide after he purchased a gun in less than 15 minutes.

The decision by Change The Ref and March For Our Lives to use AI is a striking move for some AI experts watching how the controversial technology is being used in political spaces. The statement is also a notable shift in tone compared to how March For Our Lives has commemorated the anniversary over the past half-decade.

"We have to interrupt people's regularly scheduled programming as a movement to get their attention," said David Hogg, the co-founder of March for Our Lives and a survivor of the Parkland shooting.

"And we have to use all the tools that we can at our disposal in an ethical way, of course, to get their attention in the first place. And if that means using AI to simulate the voices of people that have been stolen by gun violence, then so be it," he said.

Hogg explained that typically, on the anniversary of the shooting, March For Our Lives tries to respect the wishes of parents from Parkland, and working with Change The Ref is part of that.

Mariana Rocha holds her son Jackson as she observes a photo of her cousin Joaquin Oliver at a memorial on the fifth anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting.
Saul Martinez / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Mariana Rocha holds her son Jackson as she observes a photo of her cousin Joaquin Oliver at a memorial on the fifth anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting.

"We don't need to feel miserable [our] whole life," Manny Oliver said Wednesday after his son's recreated audio played.

"We are parents. We are husbands, wives, daughters and sons of great people," he added. "What if we bring our great people['s] message?"

Change The Ref has used AI to replicate Joaquin Oliver's voice in the past – in 2020, his parents worked to create a video of their late son speaking about the importance of voting. They've also recently come out with a campaign using AI-generated images of Republican leaders as young children in school shootings.

But the launch of the Shotline comes as questions over the ethical use of AI continue to pop up in politics.

A new frontier in politics

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission announced that robocalls using AI-generated voices violated telecommunications law after an AI-generated robocall sounding like President Biden was circulated to New Hampshire voters ahead of the primary election, telling them to stay home.

When assessing the Shotline, some AI experts cautiously see this as ethically above board, given the messages aren't attempting to mislead anyone.

"I'm not saying this [initiative] isn't complicated and we should talk and have a serious conversation about the ethics of it. But I would say this is not a negative use case," said Hany Farid, a Professor at the University of California Berkeley who specializes in digital forensics and detecting disinformation.

The organizers behind Change The Ref worked with the victims' families on the project, and each consented to their child's voice being used. Plus, each message being sent to congressional offices states it is AI-generated.

"I think as long as there is disclosure about it, as long as they're not trying to be deceptive, which they clearly are not," he added, "I think it's both powerful and I think it shows... an effective and non-nefarious use case of generative AI."

Irene Solaiman, the head of global policy at the AI company Hugging Face, was moved by the voices highlighted in the Shotline. She told NPR that AI use in advocacy can be a powerful tool when used respectively by individuals affected by it. However, as she continues to wrestle with what the future of the appropriate use of AI looks like, questions still arise.

"There is a danger to generating representations of people who have lost their lives where the authority to control that representation may not only rest among the loved ones," Solaiman said. "There's no real delineation of who those loved ones are, who are the appropriate people to control the representation, and whether that control should lie in the developer, a company or the people who are distributing the voice or generated content?"

Manny Oliver, Patricia Oliver and David Hogg speak during a March for Our Lives rally in June 2022.
Leigh Vogel / Getty Images for March For Our Lives
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Getty Images for March For Our Lives
Manny Oliver, Patricia Oliver and David Hogg speak during a March for Our Lives rally in June 2022.

Gun control advocates look beyond

The complicated nature of the issue is not lost on the gun control advocates. But to organizers behind March For Our Lives and Charge The Ref, the campaign centers on the need to hear from victims themselves.

"We talk too much about statistics and not enough about people a lot of the time. And it's not for a bad reason. It's just because we care a lot about how we can end this," Hogg said.

According to the Shotline's page, 656 mass shootings occurred in 2023, resulting in more than 43,000 deaths, which aligns with data from the Gun Violence Archive.

"But unfortunately, statistics don't change people's minds," Hogg added. "Stories do, and people do."

For Manny Oliver, using AI has been a way to bring some of his son's voice back.

"Some people might feel uncomfortable with this," he said. "But I think it's time for you to feel uncomfortable. And if you feel very uncomfortable, then you should do something about it."

Thousands of calls have already been placed, according to the Shotline's count. While he is aware of the concerns, he believes maybe hearing from victims in their own voices can — finally — spark change.

"This is a tool that ... if it's in good hands, you can do great things," Oliver added. "I think our hands are good. We're trying to save lives."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elena Moore is a production assistant for the NPR Politics Podcast. She also fills in as a reporter for the NewsDesk. Moore previously worked as a production assistant for Morning Edition. During the 2020 presidential campaign, she worked for the Washington Desk as an editorial assistant, doing both research and reporting. Before coming to NPR, Moore worked at NBC News. She is a graduate of The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and is originally and proudly from Brooklyn, N.Y.