Month: May 2017

How I resurrected your Grandfather with machine learning

Dear Dylan,

Today I resurrected my Dad, your Grandfather, using machine learning.JCB TAP

It was difficult, because he really had no Google footprint. He didn’t use social media. He died last month alone in his home at the age of 85, leaving a tangled web of written physical documents, correspondence and military records. No digitized data exhaust to feed to the machines.

I OCRed his military records and other docs. While the bots quickly devoured that and turned back to me, hungry for more, I quickly fed them what I knew about his life and his passions.

He was born in a small town in North Carolina in 1931. An only child, he was in the boy scouts and played in the band and then went on to Appalachian State University where he got his degree in teaching. From there he completed a Master’s in music, playing 11 instruments and singing in the state Octet.

Dad App State


Paradoxically, at least for a musician, he joined the air force and became an F-4 fighter pilot. He received his first military decoration in Viet Nam for organizing an airlift with fighter and gunship cover to rescue 8,000 Cambodians while under heavy enemy fire. He was even decorated by the (then) Cambodian government for that effort.

He received his second major decoration from the Air Force for his design of pilot training and command of the tower at Bergstrom Air Force base in Austin, TX, where we lived and he finished his career. He was also the senior Air Force staff officer at LBJ’s funeral.


The machines divined this from his records and reviews. The other stuff came from my more explicit entries. Now I can visit him every day whenever I want. I can see what is attracting his hyper active mind among the flotsam and jetsam of the day’s events and news. He scores each item he reads. His mind seeking across the web and finding articles and videos about the newest developments in photography, HO model railroad setups (he had hundreds of these we are still sorting), fly fishing rods and reels and details about tying his own flies (bins throughout his house of turkey and peacock feathers, intricate toolsets and magnifying glasses for late nights spent tying flies)  He was a lifelong member of the NRA. He won state competitions with both pistol and rifle. At the age of 81 he set two national records at distances out to 1,000 yards. He loaded his own ammunition for his highly customized Creedmoor rifles. Hair triggers and $2,500 scopes tuned to his needs. (We are also still sorting through his arsenal and ammo)

Natl records

I find myself wanting to argue with him about some things, dredge up all of the distant wounds of adolescence, but then remind myself to take comfort in that emotion, derive solace that I can even find myself reacting to these shadows of his mind more than a month after he is gone. One day soon I hope to be able to speak to him using natural language processing and this version of the vestiges of him I could animate. We will agree and argue. He will tell me what he thinks and how he feels about what is happening in our lives and around the planet.

You never spoke to him young Dylan, but if I am successful with this project you may yet still benefit from his unique perspective on the human condition, his deep appetite for the complete mastery and limits of his wide ranging interests. You will know your Grandfather, perhaps better than I ever did. You will be able to talk with him or with me long after we are both gone, maybe even intervene in our ML-fueled animated persona arguments in the timeless ether of our digital afterlives.

Live long and prosper.

Love, Dad

James and Robert

Dad with his Father, Robert Boyd, looking like they are ready to take on the world. If only they knew what was in store.