May 2, 2019

Deepfakes for good

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

What do you do with a technology that could restore the voices of people who have lost theirs — but also sow chaos and incite violence?

What's happening: A growing group of companies are walking this tightrope, betting they can deploy deepfakes — videos, audio and photos that are altered or generated by AI — as a force for good, or at least non-malign purposes, while keeping the technology away from those who would use it to do harm.

These entrepreneurs are playing with fire. Experts have long warned that the power to convincingly alter or invent video or audio could be a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands.

  • Easily forged videos of world leaders could supercharge fake news or help trolls set off political crises from the comfort of their homes.
  • But some argue that there is no stopping deepfakes. "The technology exists," says Danika Laszuk, who leads Betaworks Camp, a New York City startup accelerator. "There are no genie-back-in-the-bottle moments."

The big picture: Deepfakes or "synthetic media" — have largely been the purview of academics and online trolls for the few years they've been around.

Details: Betaworks is convening 7 synthetic media startups for a 3-month program this summer — and investing $200,000 in each.

  • They include Radical, which turns 2D videos into 3D scenes; Auxuman, which has an AI-generated avatar that plays AI-generated music; and Dzomo, which wants to replace expensive stock photography with deepfake images.
  • They will join a slowly growing field of synthetic media companies. Synthesia, a new startup co-founded by a former Stanford professor, can convincingly dub videos into new languages. In a demo, British soccer legend David Beckham delivers a PSA about malaria in nine languages — most of which he does not actually speak.
  • Perhaps the best example of deepfakes for good: Lyrebird, a company that creates digital voices that mimic actual speakers, is cloning the voices of people with ALS in order to allow them to continue communicating once they can no longer speak.

Making money off of deepfakes requires extreme care, says Hany Farid, a Dartmouth professor and leading expert on synthetic media. Companies must build safeguards from the very beginning, he says.

"The abuses of social media should be a cautionary tale — the model of 'move fast and break things' is fatally flawed, and we should adopt a mantra of move slowly, innovate and don’t break things."
— Hany Farid, Dartmouth

For now, Lyrebird and Synthesia are relying mostly on ethics policies: They say they won't alter a video or audio clip of a person without their express consent.

  • Laszuk says that testing how to keep the tech safe will be a top priority for the Betaworks startups.
  • One participant is developing technology to detect deepfakes, and its work — plus advice from outside ethics experts — is meant to push the founders to build in systems that prevent the exploitation of their discoveries.

Go deeper

Trump accuses Twitter of interfering in 2020 election

President Trump speaks to the press as he departs the White House in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. Photo: Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

President Trump responded via tweets Tuesday evening to Twitter fact-checking him for the first time on his earlier unsubstantiated posts claiming mail-in ballots in November's election would be fraudulent.

What he's saying: "Twitter is now interfering in the 2020 Presidential Election.They are saying my statement on Mail-In Ballots, which will lead to massive corruption and fraud, is incorrect, based on fact-checking by Fake News CNN and the Amazon Washington Post," the president tweeted. "Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH, and I, as President, will not allow it to happen!"

Editor's note: This is a developing news story. Please check back for updates.

30 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 8:30 p.m. ET: 5,584,091 — Total deaths: 349,894 — Total recoveries — 2,284,242Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 8:30 p.m. ET: 1,680,301 — Total deaths: 98,875 — Total recoveries: 384,902 — Total tested: 14,907,041Map.
  3. Federal response: DOJ investigates meatpacking industry over soaring beef pricesMike Pence's press secretary returns to work.
  4. Congress: House Republicans to sue Nancy Pelosi in effort to block proxy voting.
  5. Business: How the new workplace could leave parents behind.
  6. Tech: Twitter fact-checks Trump's tweets about mail-in voting for first timeGoogle to open offices July 6 for 10% of workers.
  7. Public health: CDC releases guidance on when you can be around others after contracting the coronavirus.
  8. What should I do? When you can be around others after contracting the coronavirus — Traveling, asthma, dishes, disinfectants and being contagiousMasks, lending books and self-isolatingExercise, laundry, what counts as soap — Pets, moving and personal healthAnswers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingHow to minimize your risk.
  9. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it, the right mask to wear.

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Updated 1 min ago - Politics & Policy

Twitter fact-checks Trump's tweets for first time

President Trump briefs reporters in the Rose Garden on May 26. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Twitter fact-checked two of President Trump's unsubstantiated tweets that mail-in ballots in the 2020 election would be fraudulent for the first time on Tuesday, directing users to "get the facts" through news stories that cover the topic.

Why it matters: Twitter and other social media platforms have faced criticism for not doing enough to combat misinformation, especially when its propagated by the president.