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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

Ben Geman, author of Generate
23 mins ago - Energy & Environment

IEA analysis charts "narrow" pathway to Paris climate goal

Photovoltaic solar panels at the power plant in La Colle des Mees, Alpes de Haute Provence, southeastern France. Photo: Gerard Julien/AFP via Getty Images

The pathway for transforming global energy systems to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 is "narrow but still achievable" and demands unprecedented acceleration away from fossil fuels, an International Energy Agency report published Tuesday concludes.

Why it matters: It provides detailed analysis and estimates of what's needed for a good shot at limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels — the Paris Agreement benchmark for avoiding some of the most damaging effects of climate change.

2 hours ago - World

In photos: Deadly Cyclone Tauktae leaves trail of destruction across India

A police officer helps a public transport driver cross a flooded street due to heavy rain caused by Tropical Cyclone Tauktae in Mumbai, India, on May 17. Photo: Ashish Vaishnav/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Tropical Cyclone Tauktae killed at least 16 people in India after making landfall in Gujarat Monday, packing 100mph winds, and sweeping across Kerala, Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra, per Reuters.

The big picture: The storm unleashed heavy rains and winds as authorities continued to grapple with surging infection rates and deaths from COVID-19. Over 200,000 people were evacuated from Gujarat, and ports, airports and vaccination centers shut in the state and Mumbai, Reuters reports. Tauktae weakened from a Category 3 storm into a "severe cyclonic storm" Tuesday morning local time.

4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Yellen wants business to help foot infrastructure bill

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is heading into the belly of the beast Tuesday and asking the business community to support President Biden's $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan during a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Why it matters: By trying to persuade a skeptical and targeted audience, Yellen is signaling the president’s commitment to raising corporate taxes to pay for his plan. Republican senators, critical to a potential bipartisan deal, oppose any corporate tax increase.