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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

Janet Yellen confirmed as Treasury secretary

Janet Yellen. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Senate voted 84-15 to confirm Janet Yellen as Treasury secretary on Monday.

Why it matters: Yellen is the first woman to serve as Treasury secretary, a Cabinet position that will be crucial in helping steer the country out of the pandemic-induced economic crisis.

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
4 hours ago - Economy & Business

Scoop: Red Sox strike out on deal to go public

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The parent company of the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool F.C. has ended talks to sell a minority ownership stake to RedBall Acquisition, a SPAC formed by longtime baseball executive Billy Beane and investor Gerry Cardinale, Axios has learned from multiple sources. An alternative investment, structured more like private equity, remains possible.

Why it matters: Red Sox fans won't be able to buy stock in the team any time soon.