Stolen babies. Relentless grannies. Artificial intelligence. An image generator could help families of missing persons in Argentina find answers. It’s a tale that’s part heartbreak, part hope, and part high tech.
From 1976 to 1983, military officials seized control of Argentina. During the chaos, officials detained or executed those who disagreed with them. Families allied with the new regime took some stolen children and raised them as their own.
The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo is a human rights group. It formed shortly after the military coup. Many involved in the organization are actual grandmothers looking for their own stolen grandchildren. For years, they have demanded answers about the disappeared* children.
The Grandmothers group estimates the military snatched about 500 children. Today, Grandmothers use genetic testing to prove identity. Grandmothers has located 133 stolen and illegally adopted children this way.
Argentine publicist Santiago Barros wants to help. But he takes a different tack. He uses artificial intelligence.
“We have seen the photos of most of the disappeared,” but not of the children, Barros says. “It struck me that these people did not have [faces].”
Those children are now adults.
Using an app called Midjourney, Barros combines photos of disappeared fathers and mothers. He creates images of what the stolen children might look like as adults.
From two female and two male possibilities, Barros chooses one of each. Almost every day, he uploads them to a private Instagram account. He calls each image “a person who could exist.”
Barros hopes to stir the minds of those over age 46 who wonder about their origins. He also seeks to remind people of the Grandmothers’ efforts to locate these children.
In some cases, families have been surprised by the resemblance of the app’s images to the faces of lost relatives.
But others criticize the app. They say it generates facial features that are too European. Barros concurs. But he notes that Argentina’s immigration history means many of the disappeared had European ancestors.
The Grandmothers group hopes the AI campaign doesn’t create false hopes. It warns that DNA testing is the only foolproof tool. Still, the group appreciates Barros’ efforts.
Barros admits his labor is an “unofficial artistic project.” He knows AI results can be inaccurate and always refers people to the Grandmothers for confirming identity.
Still, he calls viewing his photos “a memory exercise”: one that gives faces to the missing—and just might help reunite loved ones.
Why? There is value in technology that can help resolve painful events of the past.
*During the Cold War years from 1975 through the mid-1980s, a transnational organization of military dictatorships throughout Latin America formed with a goal of stopping the threat of communism. The movement, dubbed Operation Condor, involved capturing, killing, or secretly relocating tens of thousands of political dissidents—and their families. Many vanished without a trace. The individuals lost during the crackdown are collectively referred to as “The Disappeared.”