A recent article on the Forbes website shows photos of four fairly normal-looking faces: two young women, a more mature woman, and a man. Thing is, none of these people exist. The faces are composites made with artificial-intelligence (AI) technology that produces what are called deepfakes: fictitious images that only sophisticated specialists armed with software can tell from the real thing, and sometimes they can’t even tell either.

Deepfakes aren’t limited to still pictures. Another example the article cited was a State Farm commercial that purported to show a 1998 ESPN commentator making eerily accurate predictions about events in 2020. There was no such commentator, but deepfake technology enabled the producers to make it look that way.

I’ve blogged about deepfakes before, but in our current volatile circumstances, the topic deserves some revisiting. Like almost anything having to do with AI these days, the quality of deepfakes is increasing as the computer horsepower needed to make them decreases. One way AI developers have found to improve the quality of deepfakes is to pit one program against another in what’s called a “generational adversarial network,” or GAN. It’s a digital version of what a writer does when she first throws down anything she can think of on a page, and then takes off her creative cap, puts on her editor’s cap, and looks for the best parts of what she’s written and develops those. One system comes up with attempts at deepfakes and the other system critiques them, and together the two systems can approach something closer to realistic images than either one can by itself.

Regardless of how it’s done, it’s becoming harder to tell a fake still or video image from the genuine article, and thereby hangs the rub.

Every so often, the body politic enters what one might call a critical moment. We’ve had more than our share of these lately. I’d say one critical moment came last March over the weekend of the 13th to the 16th. That was when the full implications of the COVID-19 pandemic registered with officialdom, and emergency-restriction edicts began to show up everywhere from the local to the national level.

Another critical moment came after news reports of what happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 included the famous nine-minute video of officer Derek Chauvin pinning Floyd’s neck under his knee. In today’s video-saturated age, no number and quality of words can have the effectiveness with large masses of people that a single video clip can have.

There was never any serious question about the video’s authenticity, which added to its impact. Without getting into the complicated issues of the relationship between videos and total reality, I will simply point out that the Floyd video created a hypersensitized public ready to be outraged by anything similar in nature, whether real or otherwise.

There are actors and institutions out there which would like nothing better than to sow discord in a city, a state, or a nation. The 2016 presidential elections provided abundant evidence that Russia engaged in a well-resourced attempt to influence the election in ways that were disguised to appear as simply concerned U. S. citizens expressing their opinions, or spreading rumors.

We would like to believe that truth will eventually triumph, that lies and fakery eventually get discovered and discredited, and that if you just explain the facts to people in a logical way that they will agree with you. But in the heat of the moment, such as the runup to an election, a lie can get five miles down the road while the truth is still getting its pants on, and that can change the course of history in an election.

Most of the deepfakes that have drawn much attention so far are extremely unbelievable, and made so intentionally to show off their apparent authenticity. The ESPN prophet is one example. When a deepfake specialist makes former President Obama say something that no one would believe he’d actually say, the result isn’t going to fool anybody.

For a deepfake to cause serious trouble, it would require a coordinated effort among the deepfakers and a conspiracy of false witnesses to the alleged event. Just to play devil’s advocate for a moment, you may recall some time back when actor Jussie Smollett had two people attack him in Chicago with slurs and a rope around his neck. I chose the construction “had two people” intentionally, because a police investigation subsequently turned up strong evidence that Smollett paid his attackers to stage the incident for publicity purposes.

What if Smollett had instead hired a deepfaker to create a video of the incident, along with suborning witnesses who would testify to its authenticity? Now you’ve got potential dynamite instead of just a little firecracker that would take authorities just a few days to see through. And the ever-roving eye of the public, greedy for outrageous confirmation of its suspicions, would eagerly seize upon such evidence of bigotry and go to town, so to speak. Smollett would have stood a much better chance of being believed, at least for a while, and it’s possible that lots of people would be convinced by the video and might not ever change their minds afterwards.

The Smollett incident happened in January 2019, which in comparison to today seems like the bygone Edwardian era of England before the catastrophe of World War I. If someone fabricates a deepfake-assisted fraudulent incident that is primed to touch a sensitive nerve such as racism or the intense dislike that members of the public have toward a prominent political figure, it will not take much to set off reactions such as we have been seeing for the last couple of weeks since George Floyd’s death.

Over the centuries, society has learned how to cope with forgery in documents and paintings, counterfeiting in currency, and darkroom manipulation of still photographs. As the technology of deepfakes advances, I expect that we will also learn how to deal with the fact that no matter how realistic a video looks, there is always the possibility that it was faked. And that thought is especially important to hang onto in distressed times such as these, and in critical times leading up to important elections.

Sources: The Forbes article by Rob Toews appeared on May 25. I also referred to Wikipedia articles on Jussie Smollett and George Floyd. I thank my wife Pam for bringing this article to my attention.

This article has been republished with permission from Karl Stephan’s blog, Engineering Ethics.

Karl D. Stephan

Karl D. Stephan