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

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 10 p.m. ET: 12,009,301 — Total deaths: 548,799 — Total recoveries — 6,561,969Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 10 p.m. ET: 3,053,328 — Total deaths: 132,256 — Total recoveries: 953,420 — Total tested: 37,532,612Map.
  3. Public health: Houston mayor cancels Republican convention over coronavirus concerns Deaths are rising in hotspots — Déjà vu sets in as testing issues rise and PPE dwindles.
  4. Travel: United warns employees it may furlough 45% of U.S. workforce How the pandemic changed mobility habits, by state.
  5. Education: New York City schools will not fully reopen in fallHarvard and MIT sue Trump administration over rule barring foreign students from online classes.
  6. 🎧 Podcast: A misinformation "infodemic" is here.

Transcripts show George Floyd told police "I can't breathe" over 20 times

Photo: Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Newly released transcripts of bodycam footage from the Minneapolis Police Department show that George Floyd told officers he could not breathe more than 20 times in the moments leading up to his death.

Why it matters: Floyd's killing sparked a national wave of Black Lives Matter protests and an ongoing reckoning over systemic racism in the United States. The transcripts "offer one the most thorough and dramatic accounts" before Floyd's death, The New York Times writes.

8 hours ago - Health

Fighting the coronavirus infodemic

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

An "infodemic" of misinformation and disinformation has helped cripple the response to the novel coronavirus.

Why it matters: High-powered social media accelerates the spread of lies and political polarization that motivates people to believe them. Unless the public health sphere can effectively counter misinformation, not even an effective vaccine may be enough to end the pandemic.