AI Resurrects Abraham Lincoln To Fight For Criminal Justice Reform

"I stand before you today with a heavy heart and a humble spirit to acknowledge and rectify a grave … [+] mistake," Lincoln says in an AI-generated address to the nation.
EP+CoPresident Abraham Lincoln died almost 160 years ago, but he has plenty to say about today’s U.S. prison system, or so it would seem. And he’s saying it in a new AI-generated address to the nation trained on his speeches and writings.

“Slavery is not confined to the pages of history,” a lifelike CGI doppelganger of the 16th president tells an audience from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., where he stands on a digital stage in front of an American flag. “Today, the painful and troubling reality of slavery persists in our prisons and jails, where individuals endure hardship and suffering while being denied the opportunity for rehabilitation and redemption.”

In the new address, released online Wednesday by Worth Rises, a New York-based nonprofit that fights to end the exploitation of incarcerated people, AI Lincoln refers specifically to the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, it abolishes slavery and involuntary servitude—with an exception.

"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction," Section 1 of the amendment states.

Worth Rises and other social justice advocates say this loophole allows those in prison to be exploited as cheap or unpaid labor, dehumanizing and devaluing them in the process.

Worth Rises resurrected Lincoln using artificial intelligence to call attention to the clause and its impact. Through the address, titled "The Most Famous Speech Never Given" and embedded below, the organization wants to mobilize the public, Congress and the next U.S. president behind the Abolition Amendment, a joint resolution before the Senate Judiciary Committee that would formally close the loophole.

‘We Wanted To Get This Right’
“It’s not something I take lightly that we are bringing back the iconic figure of Lincoln and putting words into his mouth,” Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, said in an interview. “We have operated with a significant amount of reverence and thoughtfulness around this process. We wanted to get this right from a historical vantage point. We wanted to get this right from an ethical perspective.”

Actor Graham Sibley wears a motion capture suit to simulate Lincoln’s gestures in a way that’s … [+] consistent with how historical accounts describe them.
EP+CoThe 13th Amendment exception originally got added, according to Worth Rises, in an attempt to include more moderate language that could pass both the Republican-controlled Senate and Democrat-controlled House of Representatives.

The addition “was a concession, a compromise of sorts, made at a time when the nation was deeply divided and healing from the wounds of the Civil War,” AI Lincoln says in the speech, talking in a high-pitched tenor laced with a twang that echoes his childhood in Kentucky. “Yet I did not anticipate the extent to which this exception would be used to perpetuate slavery behind prison walls, leading to continued suffering and injustice, particularly among Black Americans.”

Tylek, who graduated from Harvard Law School, said the Abolition Amendment doesn’t currently face any organized opposition. “It’s more about lack of awareness, even among legislators and legislative staff, that the exception exists,” she said.

How Lincoln Rose From The Dead
In an attempt to change that, the team from branding agency EP+Co that produced “The Most Famous Speech Never Given” trained two generative AI tools, Jasper and ChatGPT, on troves of Lincoln’s speeches and essays, and then prompted the tools to generate the four-minute address. After consulting with author and Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, as well as studying the tone of the former president’s writings and watching historical documentaries, they made a few minor tweaks to the AI-generated text.

To account for vocal nuances, for example, they added filler words that would have reflected Lincoln’s natural speaking style, and modernized other words so the speech could be easily understood in 2024.

“Generative AI is still such a new and evolving technology that we didn’t expect it to nail the speech exactly, but it came extremely close,” EP+Co’s executive creative director John Cornette said in an interview.

“We chose to use AI out of moral obligation,” Cornette added. “If creatives or clients wrote the speech for Lincoln, it would feel wrong. We wanted people to really see that this isn’t a left- or right-of-the-aisle issue. It’s an issue of compassion, to quote AI Abe.”
A CGI Lincoln delivers the AI-generated speech from a digital stage, punctuating his points with … [+] subtle hand gestures.
EP+CoActor Graham Sibley, who voices the CGI Lincoln, has stepped into Honest Abe’s leather boots before, having played the former president in the 2022 History Channel Abraham Lincoln docuseries based on a book by presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Sibley spent a day in a motion-capture suit recreating the Lincoln movements he’d mastered for the series so viewers would feel like they’re watching the past president speak in the present day about righting a historical wrong.

“I think Lincoln would have believed in this campaign with his whole being,” Sibley said in an interview. “He would have recognized the harms caused by the prison industrial complex. Lincoln was a very patient leader, and many faulted him for that, but it’s been long enough since he helped pass the 13th Amendment that I think he’d want this changed.”

While no evidence exists that Lincoln noticed, much less lobbied, against the exception—”he probably thought it was pro forma and at most a necessary evil to minimize objections to the opening clause,” Holzer said over email—the historian said everything he knows about Lincoln indicates he ultimately would have come to oppose it.

“Would Lincoln have objected to it when he realized how the clause has been used and abused for the century and a half since? I would answer yes,” Holzer said.

When AI Meets Social Activism
AI Lincoln stands out among the growing number of historical figures brought back to life by artificial intelligence: Vincent van Gogh, Elvis Presley, Edith Piaf, to name a few. Most reach back in time to entertain or make the past more engaging and accessible. AI Lincoln, in contrast, leaps two centuries forward to wade into 21st century politics.

Michele Elam, senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Human Centered AI who teaches and researches AI and social justice, viewed a short video excerpt of "The Most Famous Speech Never Given" and said she appreciates that the team behind it vetted AI Lincoln’s words and gestures for authenticity and weighed the ethical considerations of the project.

Still, even those who deploy AI mindfully and for worthy causes can end up facing unanticipated consequences, she cautions, especially in a tangled era of conspiracy theories, deepfakes and debates over what constitutes historical fact.

“There are already too many examples of AI being developed for one purpose only to be used for another,” Elam said. “Ethical guardrails, bias audits, copyright laws, government and commercial oversight are important, but go only so far to meet the challenge of unintended or malevolent applications of AI. That is because social values are embedded in our technologies. They are not merely neutral tools in the hands of good or bad actors.”

Dyjuan Tatro, who served 12 years in New York prisons before being released in 2017, was initially hesitant about an AI Lincoln, but for a different reason: He wondered whether a computerized politician talking about the 13th Amendment could resonate with Americans. After watching the speech, he views AI Lincoln as “quite genius” and a novel way to educate the public about the history of the exception clause and its repercussions.

“Incarcerated people viscerally feel the weight of this exception,” Tatro, 38, said in an interview. “There’s not a day that goes by in prison where this exception doesn’t show up in your life.”

Sweeping Floors And Scrubbing Pots
While doing time for assault, Tatro, a Worth Rises #EndTheException campaign ambassador, was assigned tasks including sweeping hallway floors, wiping down mess hall tables and scrubbing pots. He didn’t glean any job experience or life lessons from the menial labor, he said, and barely earned enough to buy basic goods from the prison commissary.
Dyjuan Tatro
Beowulf Sheehan“You’re paid 10 cents an hour and you can’t afford toilet tissue, toothpaste,” Tatro said. “A jar of peanut butter is $4. Your pay for the entire week is like $4. The material impact of it was impoverishing, it was demoralizing, it was cruel.”

Tatro considers himself fortunate to have gotten two college degrees, including a bachelor’s in math, through New York State’s Bard Prison Initiative, which brings college to incarcerated people, and he now works as the program’s senior government affairs officer. But when he walked out of prison on a sunny August day six and a half years ago, he left with just $40 and a bus ticket.

“I went to prison at 20 years old, someone who had never had a job and sold drugs, and left prison, despite having to do work every day, not only with no job experience, but also having learned that my labor was worth almost nothing,” he said.

While people may have conflicting views about prison labor practices, Tatro said he believes everyone can agree prisons should result in safer communities. For that to happen, he said, the institutions need to be rehabilitative, not punitive.

“Even if you don’t think I deserve to make the minimum wage while I’m incarcerated, I don’t think you’d also agree that you want me to get out of prison after 12 years with no job skills,” he said. “When the prison doesn’t do one thing to prepare you to reenter society, it makes you question whether or not there’s any place for you in society.”

Now, Tatro has Abraham Lincoln in his corner.
Abraham Lincoln comes back to speak about a modern cause in a speech that lasts about four minutes.

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{Author}Leslie Katz, Contributor{/Author}

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