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Bogus Putin interview reveals a real deepfake threat

Photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin looking through a tube
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.