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The real Putin. Photo: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty

At an MIT conference on Wednesday, a journalist pointedly asked Russian President Vladimir Putin whether he would interfere again in U.S. elections. Putin demurred.

What's happening: The world leader was actually a glitchy deepfake. His face was a real-time AI-generated mask that made a performer look like Putin on screen — but because the mask stopped at the forehead, this was Putin with a fresh head of hair.

The big picture: The stunt was a snapshot of the current state of deepfakes, a fast-improving technology that has stirred up concern for its potential to disrupt elections and business — but that also holds creative promise.

  • For the most part, deepfakes require a considerable amount of time, setup and fine-tuning — they're generally prerecorded video clips.
  • But the Putin fake was different. It masked the speaker's face in real time — but as a result, it was considerably less convincing than the typically better-rendered clips.

Details: Putin's Wednesday cameo — portrayed by MIT Technology Review editor-in-chief Gideon Lichfield, who also played himself as the interviewer — was the work of Hao Li, a USC professor and founder of a deepfake-producing startup called Pinscreen.

  • Li's on-the-fly deepfake, which appeared on screen before a live audience, wouldn't fool anyone. There was a clear dividing line between Putin's face and Lichfield's forehead, and the faux president's mouth — a notoriously difficult element to get right in deepfake videos — often looked weird.
  • But Li has Hollywood-grade work under his belt: Pinscreen helped render the late Paul Walker in "Furious 7," and Li is reportedly working on a new Will Smith movie.

In an interview with MIT Tech Review, Li says the technology is only getting better. “Our guess that in 2 to 3 years, it’s going to be perfect," he told reporter Patrick Howell O’Neill. "There will be no way to tell if it’s real or not, so we have to take a different approach.”

  • Li is working with Berkeley's Hany Farid, a top digital forensics expert, to improve deepfake-detection algorithms. Facebook, where Farid consults, announced this month that it's pouring money into a contest to make better detectors.
  • Yes, but: That's not an easy goal. Experts say that deepfake generation and detection will be forever chasing each other — and that deepfake-makers will always have the edge.

Go deeper

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
4 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Democrats' billionaires tax explained

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

There is now legislative language behind the push to tax American billionaires on unrealized capital gains, as Sen. Ron Wyden last night released his 107-page plan.

Why it matters: This would be a sea change in U.S. tax policy, which has only applied to realized gains (otherwise known as income).

50 mins ago - World

Scoop: Blinken protests Israel settlements approval in "tense" phone call

Benny Gantz (L) and Tony Blinken. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/Pool/AFP via Getty

Secretary of State Tony Blinken protested the decision to approve 3,000 new housing units in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank during a tense phone call on Tuesday with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, three Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: This is the first time new construction in the settlements has been approved since President Biden assumed office, and the Biden administration had been privately pressing the Israeli government not to proceed.

The startup that wants to disrupt big internet providers

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

A new startup backed by funding from AOL founder Steve Case and Laurene Powell Jobs wants to break up broadband monopolies across the country.

Why it matters: Internet access has been crucial during the pandemic, but it's not ubiquitous, and it can be both slow and unaffordable in swaths of the country.