Skip to Content
Artificial intelligence

Generative AI can turn your most precious memories into photos that never existed

The Synthetic Memories project is helping families around the world reclaim a past that was never caught on camera.

Domestic Data Streamers

Maria grew up in Barcelona, Spain, in the 1940s. Her first memories of her father are vivid. As a six-year-old, Maria would visit a neighbor’s apartment in her building when she wanted to see him. From there, she could peer through the railings of a balcony into the prison below and try to catch a glimpse of him through the small window of his cell, where he was locked up for opposing the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

There is no photo of Maria on that balcony. But she can now hold something like it: a fake photo—or memory-based reconstruction, as the Barcelona-based design studio Domestic Data Streamers puts it—of the scene that a real photo might have captured. The fake snapshots are blurred and distorted, but they can still rewind a lifetime in an instant.

“It’s very easy to see when you’ve got the memory right, because there is a very visceral reaction,” says Pau Garcia, founder of Domestic Data Streamers. “It happens every time. It’s like, ‘Oh! Yes! It was like that!’”

a generated black and white image of people dancing
In 1960s post-civil war Barcelona, 14-year-old Denia (now 73) and her family, newly arrived from Alcalá de Júcar, found solace and excitement in the lively dance hall ‘La Gavina Azul’. It was a sanctuary of joy amid the post-war reality, where the thrill of music and dance promised freedom from daily monotony and poverty of that time.

Dozens of people have now had their memories turned into images in this way via Synthetic Memories, a project run by Domestic Data Streamers. The studio uses generative image models, such as OpenAI’s DALL-E, to bring people’s memories to life. Since 2022, the studio, which has received funding from the UN and Google, has been working with immigrant and refugee communities around the world to create images of scenes that have never been photographed, or to re-create photos that were lost when families left their previous homes.

Now Domestic Data Streamers is taking over a building next to the Barcelona Design Museum to record people’s memories of the city using synthetic images. Anyone can show up and contribute a memory to the growing archive, says Garcia. 

Synthetic Memories could prove to be more than a social or cultural endeavor. This summer, the studio will start a collaboration with researchers to find out if its technique could be used to treat dementia.

Memorable graffiti

The idea for the project came from an experience Garcia had in 2014, when he was working in Greece with an organization that was relocating refugee families from Syria. A woman told him that she was not afraid of being a refugee herself, but she was afraid of her children and grandchildren staying refugees because they might forget their family history: where they shopped, what they wore, how they dressed.

Garcia got volunteers to draw the woman’s memories as graffiti on the walls of the building where the families were staying. “They were really bad drawings, but the idea for synthetic memories was born,” he says. Several years later, when Garcia saw what generative image models could do, he remembered that graffiti. ”It was one of the first things that came to mind,” he says.

a generated image of a mother walking on a footpath with three children in a green field
In 1990, 14-year-old Emerund lived in a small Cameroonian village, spending his afternoons helping his mother in the fields planting corn and potatoes after school. These moments were a mix of duty and joy as he balanced the responsibilities towards his family with the simple pleasures of being close to nature and his siblings. These memories from his childhood hold a special place in his heart, as he remembered one specific part of the fields where his siblings would play hide and seek with their mother.

The process that Garcia and his team have developed is simple. An interviewer sits down with a subject and gets the person to recall a specific scene or event. A prompt engineer with a laptop uses that recollection to write a prompt for a model, which generates an image.

His team has built up a kind of glossary of prompting terms that have proved to be good at evoking different periods in history and different locations. But there’s often some back and forth, some tweaks to the prompt, says Garcia: “You show the image generated from that prompt to the subject and they might say, ‘Oh, the chair was on that side’ or ‘It was at night, not in the day.’ You refine it until you get it to a point where it clicks.”

So far Domestic Data Streamers has used the technique to preserve the memories of people in various migrant communities, including Korean, Bolivian, and Argentine families living in São Paolo, Brazil. But it has also worked with a care home in Barcelona to see how memory-based reconstructions might help older people. The team collaborated with researchers in Barcelona on a small pilot with 12 subjects, applying the approach to reminiscence therapy—a treatment for dementia that aims to stimulate cognitive abilities by showing someone images of the past. Developed in the 1960s, reminiscence therapy has many proponents, but researchers disagree on how effective it is and how it should be done.

The pilot allowed the team to refine the process and ensure that participants could give informed consent, says Garcia. The researchers are now planning to run a larger clinical study in the summer with colleagues at the University of Toronto to compare the use of generative image models with other therapeutic approaches.

One thing they did discover in the pilot was that older people connected with the images much better if they were printed out. “When they see them on a screen, they don’t have the same kind of emotional relation to them,” says Garcia. “But when they could see it physically, the memory got much more important.”    

Blurry is best

The researchers have also found that older versions of generative image models work better than newer ones. They started the project using two models that came out in 2022: DALL-E 2 and Stable Diffusion, a free-to-use generative image model released by Stability AI. These can produce images that are glitchy, with warped faces and twisted bodies. But when they switched to the latest version of Midjourney (another generative image model that can create more detailed images), the results did not click with people so well.

“If you make something super-realistic, people focus on details that were not there,” says Garcia. “If it’s blurry, the concept comes across better. Memories are a bit like dreams. They do not behave like photographs, with forensic details. You do not remember if the chair was red or green. You simply remember that there was a chair.” 

a group of people cluster around a synthetic memory with expressions of surprise
“When they could see it physically, the memory got much more important.”

The team has since gone back to using the older models. “For us, the glitches are a feature,” says Garcia. “Sometimes things can be there and not there. It’s kind of a quantum state in the images that works really well with memories.”

Sam Lawton, an independent filmmaker who is not involved with the studio, is excited by the project. He’s especially happy that the team will be looking at the cognitive effects of these images in a rigorous clinical study. Lawton has used generative image models to re-create his own memories. In a film he made last year, called Expanded Childhood, he used DALL-E to extend old family photos beyond their borders, blurring real childhood scenes with surreal ones.

“The effect exposure to this kind of generated imagery has on a person's brain was what spurred me to make the film in the first place,” says Lawton. “I was not in a position to launch a full-blown research effort, so I pivoted to the kind of storytelling that's most natural to me.”

Lawton’s work explores a number of questions: What will long-term exposure to AI-generated or altered images have on us? Can such images help reframe traumatic memories? Or do they create a false sense of reality that can lead to confusion and cognitive dissonance?

Lawton showed the images in Expanded Childhood to his father and included his comments in the film: “Something’s wrong. I don’t know what that is. Do I just not remember it?”

Nuria, now 90, vividly recalls the men and boys who waited outside bomb shelters in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, ready with picks and axes to rescue anyone trapped inside. These individuals, braving the danger of falling bombs, showed incredible courage and selflessness. Their actions, risking their lives to save others, left a lasting impression on Nuria. Even now, she remembers in detail the clothes and dirty coats these men wore.

Garcia is aware of the dangers of confusing subjective memories with real photographic records. His team’s memory-based reconstructions are not meant to be taken as factual documents, he says. In fact, he notes that this is another reason to stick with the less photorealistic images produced by older versions of generative image models. “It is important to differentiate very clearly what is synthetic memory and what is photography,” says Garcia. “This is a simple way to show that.”

But Garcia is now worried that the companies behind the models might retire their previous versions. Most users look forward to bigger and better models; for Synthetic Memories, less can be more. “I’m really scared that OpenAI will close DALL-E 2 and we will have to use DALL-E 3,” he says.

Deep Dive

Artificial intelligence

What are AI agents? 

The next big thing is AI tools that can do more complex tasks. Here’s how they will work.

What is AI?

Everyone thinks they know but no one can agree. And that’s a problem.

Why Google’s AI Overviews gets things wrong

Google’s new AI search feature is a mess. So why is it telling us to eat rocks and gluey pizza, and can it be fixed?

How to use AI to plan your next vacation

AI tools can be useful for everything from booking flights to translating menus.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.