Imagine a world in which digital technology was so sophisticated that you couldn’t ever be sure if anything you saw or heard was real. There are already plenty of fakes online, but I’m not just talking about digitally altered photographs or the “creative editing” done to audio and video recordings used in news reports and documentaries to remove context or change the intended meaning of what was said. This is full-on fakery: a complete video of someone that’s been entirely created, in which you can watch that person give a speech he never actually made, IN HIS OWN VOICE, with gestures he never used. And it would be virtually undetectable, meaning that without intensive forensic examination –- and maybe even with it –- we would be unable to tell what was real and what wasn’t.
We’re almost there.
On NPR this weekend, the show “Radiolab” looked at the current state of technology that allows such sophisticated fakery, and we appear to be only a few steps away from “reality” becoming almost a meaningless concept when it comes to information. Of course, being a radio show, it could illustrate only the audio manipulation, but it gave a link to some stunning video.
At this site, it’s possible to watch fake Barack Obama “speak” into the camera with the words and facial expressions of another man, shown in the upper left of the screen. The whole thing is computer generated. It’s Obama’s voice. Visually, fake Obama mirrors the other man exactly. Like Orwell’s “Big Brother,” his eyes never leave the viewer. To watch this is extremely unsettling. Subtle giveaways, such as a very slight fuzziness around the mouth, are sure to be refined in the near future.
Private companies have been developing this technology for use in advertising. We’ve already seen some fabulous fakes of Audrey Hepburn and others, such as Fred Astaire dancing with a vacuum cleaner. (This is why celebrities are now having to copyright their own images for every conceivable form of technology and will the rights to their heirs.) But the ability to literally put words in someone’s mouth is new. Fred will be able to dance AND SING about the vacuum cleaner, with lips in perfect sync. The images of Hollywood actresses will sell beauty products all around the world, in scores of different languages --- not just dubbed, but as if they were actually saying the words.
In fact, even the most thick-headed Hollywood celebrities could actually be made to appear intelligent, humble and well-informed. Talk about a technological marvel.
Advertising isn’t that much of a concern, because we know commercials are written and produced. We know it’s just a clever ad agency that paired Fred Astaire with a vacuum cleaner. But look at what this means for criminal prosecution, for example. Say there were people in the FBI or CIA who really, really wanted to prosecute someone; I know that’s far-fetched, but just go with me here. They could create audio and even video of that person talking with, say, Russian oligarchs, about how they were going to rig the Presidential election by hacking directly into the voting machines. If such a situation were to exist a few years from now, there might not be any need for actual evidence of the crime. The evidence could simply be created in a state-of-the-art production studio.
It works the other way, too. Say a prosecutor had actual video of someone planning a crime. It would be so easy for the defendant to say, “Hey, that’s not me. It sounds like me, but I never said that!”
It wouldn’t have to be the government doing it, either, though one could argue that their technology would be the most sophisticated of all. Terrorists, unfriendly governments and rogue bloggers could create the kind of propaganda that incites violence and even starts wars. In an age when we depend almost entirely on our screens for information, it would be impossible to trust any of it.
So what do we do? Think of this current age of “fake news” as a practice round for the more challenging time to come. The technology typically used today will seem primitive in just a few years, so if we allow ourselves to be fooled at all by it, we’ll surely be helpless against the really cutting-edge tools. Keep in mind, we’re most easily fooled by information we’re predisposed to like and agree with, so examine that the most carefully. And if someday you see a video of me asking you to vote for Chelsea Clinton, remember, it’s fake.
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