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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

White House says it expects federal contractors to be vaccinated by Dec. 8

Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The White House said in new guidance Friday that it expects millions of federal contractors to be vaccinated against the coronavirus no later than Dec. 8.

Why it matters: Companies with federal contractors have been waiting for formal guidance from the White House before requiring those employees to get vaccinated, according to Reuters.

CDC director maintains Pfizer booster recommendation for high-risk workers

Rochelle Walensky listens during a confirmation hearing on July 20. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/The New York Times/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Rochelle Walensky on Friday reiterated her decision to go against a recommendation by a CDC advisory panel that refused to endorse booster shots for workers whose jobs put them at high risk for contracting COVID-19.

Driving the news: "Our healthcare systems are once again at maximum capacity in parts of the country, our teachers are facing uncertainty as they walk into the classroom," Walensky said at a Friday briefing. "I must do what I can to preserve the health across our nation."

2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Democrats release full text of Biden's $3.5T reconciliation package

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Friday unveiled the full text of President Biden's $3.5 trillion social spending package.

Why it matters: Democrats are racing to finish negotiations and get the bill on the floor as soon as possible so Pelosi can fulfill her promises to both House centrists and progressives about the timing and sequencing of passing the party's dual infrastructure packages.