Can deepfakes be good?

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: The tech is still overwhelmingly used to harass.


July 1, 2020

Fire up HBO’s new documentary Welcome to Chechnya, and you might not even realize that many of the faces you see are edited.

Welcome to Chechnya follows survivors of the Chechen Republic’s anti-gay purges. Speaking up is risky, so the producers tried a new method for keeping interviewees anonymous: deepfakes.

Deepfakes use AI to manipulate video or audio — you can swap out faces or say something in another person’s voice.

The HBO doc is maybe the most high-profile use of deepfake tech for privacy protection.

But it’s part of a growing field: The startup Teus Media offers a “digital veil” that digitally swaps out the faces of, say, sexual assault survivors.

Wait, I thought deepfakes were used to harass people?

Don’t get the wrong impression: One report found that 96% of deepfakes on the internet involve pornography, practically all made without the subject’s consent.

Deepfakes have also been used to spread misinformation, as a doctored video of Nancy Pelosi last year made clear. Facebook has tried to ban them altogether.

But these fakes might also have some upside:

  • Startups like D-ID claim they can manipulate videos to hide your face if, say, you’re caught on closed-circuit TV.
  • The company Synthesia has made dubbing less terrible — just watch its video of David Beckham talking in 9 languages.
  • The self-driving software vendor Oxbotica trains its system by generating thousands of images of real-life road scenarios.
  • In a case that’s maybe less “good for society” and more “good for movies,” Disney has gotten closer to perfecting deepfakes in big-budget films.

Can we keep it out of the wrong hands? 

Should we decide there are positives of deepfake tech, the MIT Technology Review considered ways to ensure it isn’t abused.

A few ideas: Deepfake vendors should vet their clients in depth, add video watermarks, and keep logs of who uses the technology.

Some companies have also come up with ways to restrict which faces or voices can be manipulated in a given video.

In essence: You might have license to play around with David Beckham’s voice, but the technology will freeze up if you move on to someone else.

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