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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Big Tech, top university labs and the U.S. military are pouring effort and money into detecting deepfake videos — AI-edited clips that can make it look like someone is saying something they never uttered. But video's forgotten step-sibling, deepfake audio has attracted considerably less attention despite a comparable potential for harm.

What's happening: With video deepfakes, defenders are playing the cat to a fast-scurrying mouse: AI-generated video is getting quite good. The technology to create audio fakes, by contrast, is not as advanced — but experts say that's soon to change.

  • "In a couple years, having a voice [that mimics] an individual and can speak any words we want it to speak — this will probably be a reality," Siwei Lyu, director of SUNY Albany's machine learning lab, tells Axios.
  • "But we have a rare opportunity before the problem is a reality when we can grow the forensic technology alongside the synthesis technology," says Lyu, who participates in DARPA's Media Forensics program.

Why it matters: Experts worry that easily faked but convincing AI impersonations can turn society on its head — running rampant fake news, empowering criminals, and giving political opponents and foreign provocateurs tools to sow electoral chaos.

  • In the U.S., fake audio is most likely to supercharge political mayhem, spam calls and white-collar crime.
  • But in places where fake news is already spreading disastrously on Telegram and WhatsApp (think India or Brazil), a persuasive tape of a leader saying something incendiary is especially perilous, says Sam Gregory of Witness, a human-rights nonprofit.

There are two main ways to use AI to forge audio:

Detecting audio deepfakes requires training a computer to listen for inaudible hints that the voice couldn't have come from an actual person. Lyu and UC Berkeley's Hany Farid are researching automated ways to do this.

  • Google recently made a vast dataset of its own synthetic speech available to researchers who are working on deepfake detection. This trove of training data can help AI systems find and recognize the hallmarks of fake voices.
  • For an international competition, 49 teams submitted deepfake detectors trained with Google's contribution, plus voices from 19 other sources in various languages. The top entrants were highly accurate, said competition co-organizer Junichi Yamagishi, a researcher at Japan's National Institute of Informatics. The best system only made mistakes 0.22% of the time, he tells Axios.

Pindrop, an Atlanta company that sells voice authentication to big banks and insurance companies, is also developing defenses, worried that the next wave of attacks on its clients will involve deepfake audio.

  • One key to detecting fakes, according to the company: sounds that seem normal, but that people aren't physically capable of making.
  • An example from Pindrop CEO Vijay Balasubramaniyan: If you say "Hello, Paul," your mouth can only shift from the "o" to "Paul" at a certain speed. Spoken too fast, "the only way to say this is with a 7-foot-tall neck," Balasubramaniyan says.

The bottom line: If deepfake detectors can get out ahead of the spread of fake audio, they could contain the potential fallout. And, unlike with video, it looks like the defenders could actually keep up with the forgers.

Go deeper: Audio deepfakes are getting better — but they haven't made it yet

Go deeper

Ro Khanna accuses Biden of quitting Middle East

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An outspoken progressive Democrat is wary of President Biden’s approach to the Middle East, arguing it’s like “conceding defeat of the aspiration” to win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Why it matters: A number of members of Biden’s own party dislike his Middle East strategy, as his administration signals the region is no longer the priority it was for President Obama and his predecessors.

Democrats eye reconciliation for immigration

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President Biden plans to meet this month with the leaders of Japan, Australia and India in a virtual summit of the so-called Quad, according to people familiar with the matter.

Why it matters: By putting a Quad meeting on the president’s schedule, the White House is signaling the importance of partnerships and alliances to counter China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region.