What Sensations Do Artificial Intelligence(AI)-Based Testimonies of Presence Create?

Posts Song Hye-rim

  • Created at2022.09.13
  • Updated at2023.06.12

1. Different Affect of Text and Voice

The first volume of the “Comfort Women” testimony collection clarifies the purpose of truth ascertainment, which is to prove and denounce the reality of Japanese military “Comfort Women,” in response to Japan’s concealment and distortion of history. The collection, published in 1993 after two years of recording work, begins with a 15-page explanation of the “Comfort Women” system. The placement of the testimonies after a brief overview of historical facts indicates that the testimonies of the “Comfort Women” were positioned as empirical evidence. The first testimony included in the first volume is that of the late Kim Hak-sun, the first “Comfort Woman” to have testified.


“It was dark and disorienting. That day, I couldn’t even guess where I was. My older sister and I were in a room, staring at each other, not knowing what was going on. After a while, the officer who had taken my stepfather away during the day came into the room and took me to an adjoining room with a curtain drawn. I was so terrified of being separated from my sister that I resisted not going, but all to no avail, I was dragged into the next room. The officer grabbed hold of me and tried to undress me. In the process of resisting, my clothes were torn off, and in the end, my virginity was taken away by him. (...) After daybreak, with the soldier gone, my sister came, pulling back the curtain. We clung onto each other tightly and wept bitterly, feeling miserable and dumbfounded.”[1]

The testimonies of the “Comfort Women” are recorded in the first person using colloquial language, describing the harrowing experiences and emotions felt by the witnesses. The “Comfort Women” testimonies in the collection have been edited to reconstruct them in chronological order and clarify the factual dimensions of the issue. Consequently, the narrative of the recorded testimonies centers on the “Comfort Women” issue, with the refined and complete language used throughout. However, Kim Hak-sun’s public testimony given in 1991 elicited a different emotional response. In the video, she becomes increasingly emotional while recalling painful memories, and she ceases her speech, failing to provide a complete explanation. This stands in contrast to the edited written testimonies, which remove the complex emotions expressed between the lines and the jumbled timeline. Most importantly, the spoken testimony involves the audience in the agony of the witnesses, who testify with powerful affect.


“I cried and struggled to run away to avoid being raped, but he forcefully grabbed me and wouldn’t let go (she leans over and gestures to mimic the Japanese soldier grabbing her as she was running away). The bastard, the Japanese ass, the soldier brute! (her speech speeds up and her tone becomes furious) I had no choice but to cry. I can’t even talk about what happened to me. It’s hard to put into words. My heart is so devastated (she chokes) that I can’t even speak (she wipes her tears with the handkerchief she is holding and sobs for a while, then holds back her emotions and continues speaking). Nobody knows about these terrible experiences. In Korea, no one acknowledges it, and the Japanese people say it never happened because they are ignorant of the truth! (her voice is almost screaming)”[2]

2. Affect Evoked by the Testimony of the Presence

Nowadays, most testimonies are delivered through “mediation.” It is extremely rare to be physically present at the actual scene of testifying, and unless we are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to watch recorded footage, we encounter testimonies through written records in news clips that omit important details or in articles that selectively quote specific passages, thereby omitting the full context. Thus, ethical reflection in testimony research is inextricably linked to technology. Throughout the entire process of listening to, recording, editing, and storing testimonies, various tools have been developed, and technology has been evaluated to prevent distortion or omission of the meaning of the testimony. The advancements made in technology, including recording and filming technology, have contributed to the improvement of access to both online and offline archives for the public. The rise of open-source software has also led to active discussions on copyright issues surrounding testimony archives and on the ethics of secondary creations. Additionally, technology is being experimentally employed depending on the strategy of how to mediate between the listener and the testimony. AI technology is currently the most actively utilized technology in creating the affect of presence. The USC Shoah Foundation, which has interviewed more than 55,000 Holocaust survivors, is currently developing a project to create an AI witness that enables dialogue with the general public by filming and digitizing survivors’ testimonies.[3] Project leader Heather Maio explains that they have devised a way for future generations to interact with Holocaust survivors even after their death. They assume that the experience of directly asking questions to and receiving answers from survivors, who are witnesses to history, is essential for understanding history. In other words, feeling the “presence” of the witness in front of oneself is critical.


The importance of “presence” is rooted in the idea of “phonocentrism,” as pointed out by French philosopher Jacques Derrida. In Western philosophy, which is centered around logos, “speech” was considered superior to “writing” because it was believed to establish an immediate and essential relationship with the soul. Phonocentrism is a philosophy that “regards the meaning of being in general as presence” and as a consequence, establishes conceptual superiority over immediate presence.[4] In fact, the experience of facing a high-resolution AI witness is eerie and surprising. It can show even the fine wrinkles on the face and the subtle movements of the muscles and respond calmly to difficult questions. The video and audio playback of the AI witnesses can make people mistakenly believe that they are truly conversing with the witness on the other side of the screen. With the help of advanced technology, testimony is perceived as a sense of presence even after going through several layers of mediation. This enables individuals of the here and now to transcend the gap of time and space, allowing them to meet directly with the person concerned and to experience sharing historical memories in a vivid and “authentic” manner. Recognizing the powerful affect generated by such encounters, the USC Shoah Foundation pushed forward with the project despite numerous concerns raised within the foundation.[5] The active participation of Holocaust survivors was also instrumental in the success of the project. The foundation allocates one week from 9:00 to 5:00 for each witness, asking them more than 2,000 “conceivable” questions and recording their responses. As AI technology advances, the connections between questions and answers will become even more sophisticated. Although the amount of information that the foundation can digitize will not change in the future (it might be more accurate to say that no additional information can be added due to the passing of some elderly survivors during the course of the project), the interactive nature of AI technology, which evolves on its own, will become even smoother. In the future, AI technology is anticipated to be commercialized as a universal tool for recording and permanently preserving an individual’s life, not limited to historical testimonies.


An encounter that transcends space and time ⓒ Baek Jeong-mi

3. What Does the Technology of Presence Involve?

Is technological progress always beneficial in shaping our sense of historical awareness? Debating the ethics of technology itself is meaningless. What is important is to analyze how technology establishes relationships between me and others as well as between past and present. Moreover, it’s crucial to pay attention to specific forms of sensory perception that technology creates or reinforces. Due to the rapidly changing media environment, there is a growing generational gap in how people experience and comprehend the world. For instance, “touch gestures and haptic technology” have fundamentally changed the way we perceive devices and information. The touch gesture of pulling the screen to refresh the webpage, for example, is derived from a casino slot machine. With the accumulation of physical sensations associated with expanding or shrinking the screen, turning pages, or flicking the page out of the frame, a mindset of “being able to control data as much as we like” is formed.[6] In this way, the commercialization of specific technologies and accumulation of experiences leads to the emergence of formulated sensory perceptions and a reinforced cognitive framework connected to those perceptions.


Interactive exhibitions utilizing AI technology have also been held in Korea. It is the “Eternal Testimony” exhibition, hosted by the Research Institute on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery, which is affiliated with the Women’s Human Rights Institute of Korea, and organized by Sogang University’s “Eternal Testimony” team, and it has been held since 2018.[7] The AI of “Comfort Women” victim-survivors is equipped with a conversation function with visitors based on pre-filmed testimony, but the interaction with the audience is more akin to fragmented Q&A sessions than actual conversations. A cursory glance at the recommended questionnaire provided to the audience reveals that the pre-recorded interviews with the survivors are biased toward their experiences as “Comfort Women.” Due to the limited answer data, incorrect answers would come out for questions that deviate from the basic questions. For instance, when asked about their favorite food, they might mention the sadness of starving all day during their time as “Comfort Women,” and when asked if they have any health concerns, they might recall how the “comfort stations” were located far away from the village. In the testimonial space where people ask and listen to survivors over the age of ninety, there is no “present” for them, only the “past” where they were “Comfort Women.”


Technology has a more complex relationship with the representation of “Comfort Women” victim-survivors. High-definition screens showcase the deep wrinkles on their faces and capture the movements of their trembling fingertips that come with old age. The graphic and detailed representation of these survivors effectively captures people’s attention. However, at the same time, when voice recognition fails or inappropriate answers to questions are presented, the curator may use rhetoric such as “the survivor’s hearing is bad.” Here, the concept of “aging” is being appropriated in a way advantageous to technology. In the meantime, the feminist movement has developed in a direction that does not confine victims to the identity of “victim.” However, a strategy that only emphasizes the substantive facts in testimony is at high risk of slipping into essentialist discourses. Therefore, testimonies the public encounters should not be limited to empirical language that proves the past of “Comfort Women” but should be expanded to a richer language that contains diverse life stories of individuals. Technology should not be used to reinforce the identity of the “victim.” The succession of “testimony” by future generations involves recognizing the limitations of the “testimony,” sympathizing with the pain it represents, and inheriting and reconstructing the social and political practices implied by the testimony, as opposed to copying by simply memorizing the contents of “testimony” as they are. When “Eternal Testimony” declares that testimony must be “eternal,” it is insufficient for this “eternity” to dictate the immutable identity of the witness and the contents of the testimony. Taking it a step further, it should signify that the practice of numerous others who share the responsibility of testimony that is excessively imposed on the person concerned continues forever.

4. For the Sake of Continued Testimony

The presence using virtual reality is not the only way to engage the audience in testimony. Director Emmanuel Moonchil Park’s film “Comfort,” released in 2022, creates a different kind of affect in a setting where the illusions of presence are stripped away. In this documentary about the late Kim Soon-ak, a “Comfort Woman” victim, three young women who are MeToo activists read aloud her testimony, which remains in written form. Through this, they connect their experiences of violence and pain with the survivor’s past. This scene “visualizes the ‘post-memory’ construction work of the next generation, who imagine their involvement with the past through their ‘imagination and creative immersion’” and demonstrates the scalability of the ‘involved party’s stance’.[8] Han Kang’s full-length novel “I Do Not Bid Farewell” (2021) deals with the issue of memory and mourning of the later generation for the Jeju 4.3 incident.[9] 

In this book, the daughter of a victim-survivor named “In-son” discovers photos, letters, scraped articles, and leaflets hidden deep in her mother’s closet after her death. The traces of underlines or notes dented on top of the secretly collected 4·3 data and the crumbled corners of the discolored newspaper are also the reification of the silence and tenacity of her mother Yang Jeong-sim. Filling in the gaps left by her mother’s collection, “In-son” uncovers new truths from the point where testimony failed and history was left blank. In other words, she starts actively practicing connecting testimonies from “absence” rather than “existence.” As recent beautiful works suggest, the blanks in written language can connect us to the past more powerfully than the original voice, depending on how we relate to the testimonies. Beyond doubt, technology will play a crucial role in diversifying the aspects of relationship formation. Therefore, the primary question we need to ask ourselves is: how we can ultimately relate to history through testimony.” If testimonies are restricted to the language of empiricism, the language of presence, or the language of victims, technology will end up reinforcing this discourse.  



  1. ^“ Korean Comfort Women Forcefully Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery,” compiled by the Korea Chongshindae‘s Institute affiliated with the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, Hanul Academy, 1993, pp. 37-44.
  2. ^ Excerpt from Kim Hak-sun’s first public testimony given on August 14, 1991, at the office of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (Korean Council). The author added parentheses to indicate essential elements to understand the significance of Kim Hak-sun’s actions, changes in tone, crying, etc. The source is a YouTube video titled “[85th full episode] 30th anniversary of ‘Comfort Women’ Public Testimony – Kim Hak-sun stands before us again” (re-upload). Refer to a KBS TV program, Straightforward Current Affairs, aired on August 13, 2021, from 14:45 to 15:15. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1SjO4v7Ig8k)
  3. ^ “Artificial intelligence preserving our ability to converse with Holocaust survivors even after they die,” CBS NEWS, March 27, 2022 (Last accessed on July 21, 2022). (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/holocaust-stories-artificial-intelligence-60-minutes-2022-03-27/)
  4. ^ Jacques Derrida, “Of Grammatology,” translated by Kim Woongkwon, Dongmunson, 2004, p.31.
  5. ^ Concerns were raised within the foundation regarding the ethical implications of using AI to potentially extend the lives of Holocaust survivors beyond their physical deaths, effectively attempting to make them “live forever.” Additionally, there were concerns about the potential for the production of AI to “Disney-fy” the Holocaust. Refer to the original article for more details.
  6. ^ Kim Seong-ik et al., “The Birth of Researchers,” Dolbegae, 2022. Refer to Yun Bo-ra, “Studying Gender in the Space without a Body,” pp. 148-154.
  7. ^ The “Eternal Exhibition” is scheduled to hold official exhibitions domestically and internationally after reorganization following a six-month beta exhibition held in 2021. The author visited the beta exhibition held at Sogang University on October 22, 2021.
  8. ^ Ji-un Kim, “Post-memorial analysis on the reproduction of the ‘comfort women’ - Focusing on the documentary film Comfort -,” the Association of Korean Literary Theory and Criticism 26, no.1 (2022), pp. 271-304.
  9. ^ Han Kang, “I Do Not Bid Farewell,” Munhakdongne, 2022.
Writer Song Hye-rim

I have a deep love for forests and find strength in the vibrant life that thrives within them. I am drawn to testimonies that testifiers fail in pain and yet dare to risk failure. My aim is to expand the language of testimony beyond the confines of empirical language into the realm of affect. With so many books to read and stories to hear, however, I sometimes feel impatient with the slow pace of my progress. Nevertheless, I aspire to be a bridge that connects distant places and the here and now. Currently, I am pursuing a Ph.D. in the Interdisciplinary Program of Comparative Literature at Yonsei University Graduate School.