New York, Oct 2 | The Emmys for news programming and documentaries, live-streamed this past Wednesday, generally dont draw much attention, but one award-winning film has raised disturbing questions regarding the newest weapon in the hands of people who wish to distort the way history is recorded for future generations: Artificial Intelligence (AI).
‘In Event of Moon Disaster’, a 2019 film that won the Emmy for the best interactive documentary, red flags the potential mainstream use of ‘deepfake’, a manipulative tool used at present by the porn industry to swap the faces of adult film actors with those of celebrities to make viewers believe that they are watching sexual acts being performed by famous people.
Indian actresses such as Aishwarya Rai, Katrina Kaif and Kajal Aggarwal have been targets in the past of the ‘deepfake’ industry.
The term ‘deepfake’ owes its origin to an account by that name on the social media aggregator Reddit, which only posted celebrity face-swap porn.
According to a 2019 report quoted by ‘Scientific American’, “non-consensual deepfake pornography accounted for 96 (per cent) of the total deepfake videos online”. The use of this technique, however, may no longer be limited to porn. In the hands hate-speech mongers and extremist politicians, it can become a deadly force for misinformation.
The award-winning documentary, which can be accessed through https://moondisaster.org, shows Richard Nixon, who was the President of the US during the moon landing on July 20, 1969, delivering a speech he never got to give.
The speech, written by Nixon’s speechwriter (and the man behind the famous ‘On Language’ column in ‘The New York Times’), William Safire, was to be delivered in the terrible eventuality of the Apollo 11 team of Commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin not being able to return to earth.
The lyrical homage drafted by Safire in a memo to President Nixon, which was read out by the British actor Benedict Cumberbatch on the BBC’s Newsnight programme in 2015, began with the words: “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.” And it ends with: “For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.”
Fortunately for the world, Nixon never had to deliver the speech.
In a report published last year, ‘Scientific American’ recounted how media artists Francesca Panetta and Halsey Burgund at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology teamed up with two AI companies, Canny AI and Respeecher, to create a posthumous ‘deepfake’. The synthetic video shows Nixon giving a speech that he actually never intended to deliver.
The AI-generated likeness of him, according to ‘Scientific American’, “shines new light on a quickly evolving technology with sizable implications, both creative and destructive, for our current digital information ecosystem”.
Will it be the new tool in the hands of the factories that generate content to misinform and misguide people? It’s a new danger that fake news hunters will have to beware of.