What is a deepfake and should you be worried about them?
If you’ve seen Tom Cruise doing weird magic tricks on TikTok, Donald Trump as Saul Goodman in a weird performance of Better call SaulOr Obama in a public speech insulting famous celebrities, you’ve seen a deepfake.
This clever use of technology can edit voices, faces, and generally digitally manipulate media to make it seem like someone said or did something they didn’t.
But how do these manipulated forms of media work, should you be concerned about them, and are they likely to be problematic in the future? We spoke to technologist Sam Gregory to find out.
What is Deepfake and where does its name come from?
Deepfake is a term used to describe manipulation of video, audio, image or any other digital content. In other words, Gregory says, “it’s a way in which you make someone look like someone who did or said something they never did.”
However, as an umbrella term, deepfake is a bit too specific to the idea of face swapping. Because of this, there is a lot of support for using different terms to describe this technology.
Many people prefer to use terms like “synthetic media” because it allows us to consider face swapping, lip sync dubbing, the ability to move a person’s face or body based on another source. It even allows us to incorporate the ability to create events and figures that never existed, Gregory says.
The origin of the term is another reason why many are looking to find a new term for this form of digital manipulation. In 2017, a Reddit user started using these tools to insert the faces of actresses and celebrities into pornographic videos.
We are somehow trapped by the first word used by the creator of these non-consensual sexual images. The Reddit user is called “deepfake,” Gregory said.
Is deepfake a new thing or something that has been around for a while?
It’s really only been in recent years that we’ve seen an increase in interest in deepfakes, but how long has this technology been around, or is this a brand new issue we’re dealing with in the modern digital age?
“Media manipulation, like being able to edit video and photos or even manipulate them, we’ve had it for a long time. “The advances that allow us to do the deep learning side of this have really only come in the last eight or nine years,” says Gregory.
The ability to do that, to use these algorithms that learn from the data you feed it to, say, create a fake face of your AI. This is truly a technological breakthrough in the last 10 years.
Gregory believes that while the technology has been around for a while, it has seen more attention in the public eye because of its origins in the world of pornography, where it received a lot of publicity.
However, he also believes that the technology and its potential risks are not fully understood by the general public.
There is a lot of hype. In recent years there have been headlines about how deepfaking is disrupting elections globally. The hype has drowned out the real threats. “So they’ve been in the public eye for five years or more, but often in this rather distorted way that doesn’t capture the real threats that exist.”
Can Deepfake be used positively?
For the most part, deepfake or artificial media coverage has focused on the negative aspects of this technology, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be used positively.
Sam Gregory believes there are five key ways this technology can be used positively:
- Deepfake can be used to create powerful satire and satire. These realistic deepfics can create realistic impressions of politicians and celebrities, which if labeled as deepfic content, can provide better immersion into the humor.
- While the most authentic versions of deepfaking require powerful software and skill, there are plenty of programs that the average person can use. These can superimpose celebrity faces on your face, transform into a life-size version of your friend, or make it look like someone is singing a song.
- Another positive use of deepfake is in movies and TV. Using deepfake technology, the video does not need to be dubbed. Instead, actors can be edited to appear to speak whatever language is required for the films. However, this is likely to be expensive and not a realistic option at this time.
- Gregory also believes that Deepfake could lead to a new way of searching for content. Instead of Google or Wikipedia telling you the information you were looking for, a realistic avatar can talk to you. In a video-forward world, this could be a promising alternative.
- The last positive use of Gregorian lists is to protect people. “There was a movie called Welcome to Chechnya “It showed very vulnerable LGBTQ activists in Chechnya, and they were recruiting volunteers overseas, using the volunteers to create fake faces, and swapping them with vulnerable activists to film in Chechnya,” Gregory says.
Does making deepfakes take a lot of energy and time?
Recent technologies, mainly those in the cryptocurrency space, have received backlash for the amount of energy required to run. But what about deepfakes, do they use energy extortion levels to run?
They don’t consume the energy of a small country like Bitcoin or something like that. “But they’re computationally intensive, and that’s one of the big races for video companies to develop the computing power you can use to do that.”
A good deepfake is not cheap. As we look at the threats ahead, it’s worth remembering that, at least for now, doing a really good face-swapping deepfake is still computationally intensive. They invest some money in expensive computers to perform well.
About our expert, Sam Gregory
Sam Gregory is a technologist and director of Witness, a group that helps people use video to protect human rights. He specializes in new forms of digital disinformation, especially deepfakes.