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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Researchers have broadened the controversial technology called "deepfakes" — AI-generated media that experts fear could roil coming elections by convincingly depicting people saying or doing things they never did.

Driving the news: A new computer program, created at OpenAI, the San Francisco AI lab, is the latest front in deepfakes, producing remarkably human-sounding prose that opens the prospect of fake news circulated at industrial scale.

  • As we have previously reported, existing technology can already create fake video, audio, and images — AI forgeries that together could transform the misinformation industry.

Details: The new OpenAI program is like a supercharged autocomplete — a system like Google uses to guess the next words in your search, except for whole blocks of text. Write the first sentence of a sci-fi story and the computer does the rest. Begin a news article and the computer completes it.

  • The quality varies. Sometimes, the text is a bit confused — but when it gets it right, the results are stunning. It has enormous potential for fiction or screenwriting.
  • But it could also be used for dystopian ends — huge, coordinated onslaughts of racist invective, fake news stories and made-up Amazon reviews.
  • "There are probably amazingly imaginative malicious things you could do with this technology," says Kristian Hammond, a Northwestern professor and CEO of AI company Narrative Science.

Why OpenAI created the program: The lab says it aims to create a general model for language — a program that can do what humans can (speak, understand, summarize, answer questions and translate) without being specifically trained to do each.

  • In terms of what can go wrong, this is ultimately a dual-use question — AI researchers are working on this technology for one reason, but bad players can use it for another.
  • "I think you have to ask yourself what systems like this might be capable of in several years," says Jack Clark, OpenAI's policy director. The quality of the program's writing is likely to keep improving as more data and computing power is added to the mix, he says.

How it works: The program "writes" by choosing the best next word based on both the human-written prompt and an enormous database of text it has read on the internet.

  • One reason the program is so convincing is that it was trained with enormous amounts of computing power and data — resources out of reach of many less wealthy research organizations.
  • An important point: The AI writer can only make stuff up. It can't tell the difference between a fact and a lie, which is part of what makes it volatile. Figuring out how to "teach" it what's true remains a huge challenge, says Hammond.

Because of how this technology could be abused, OpenAI announced that it will not release the program that generates the most convincing-sounding text. (Next week, we will return to this aspect of the story.)

The big question: How dangerous are text deepfakes?

  • AI-generated images have reached a level where they're often indistinguishable from real photographs. That's not true for generated text, which can sometimes be incoherent.
  • One new door that AI-generated text opens: "Conversational," rather than "broadcast" deepfakes, says Aviv Ovadya, a misinformation researcher who founded the non-profit Thoughtful Technology Project. It could be used to influence people one-on-one on a massive scale, rather than distributing a small number of forgeries widely.

Go deeper: AI wrote this story

Go deeper

Poll: Women of color highly motivated to vote

Voting rights activists, led by Congressional Black Caucus chair Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), protest recent passage of voter restriction laws at Hart Senate Office Building on July 15, 2021. Photo: Alex Wong via Getty Images

Women of color turned out to vote at record rates in the 2020 election, with almost nine in 10 agreeing that the stakes were too high not to vote, according to a new poll.

Why it matters: The findings in the poll, conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of a group of reproductive rights organizations, appear to confirm the highly-motivated voting bloc's emerging power.

Updated 3 hours ago - Sports

Olympics dashboard

Katie Ledecky in Tokyo. Photo: Ding Xu/Xinhua via Getty Images

🚨: Simone Biles won't compete in individual vault or uneven bars

🏊‍♀️: Katie Ledecky wins gold in women's 800m freestyle

🏊: Caeleb Dressel breaks world record in men's 100m butterfly, 3rd gold

🇬🇧: Britain wins gold in first-ever Olympic mixed 4x100m medley relay

💻: Japan tests teleporting games and "remote cheering"

🏳️‍⚧️: Axios at the Olympics: Games grapple with trans athletesTrans athletes see the Tokyo Games as a watershed moment

Go deeper: Full Axios coverage

Updated 3 hours ago - Sports

The Olympic events to watch today

Allyson Felix. Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

5 events to watch today...
  • 🏃‍♀️ 🏃 Track and field: The first-ever mixed 4x400m relay final starts at 8:35 a.m. ET on NBC. Watch the women’s 100m final at 8:50 a.m. ET.
  • 🏐 Women’s beach volleyball: Elimination rounds start at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.
  • 🚲 BMX freestyle finals: Watch USA’s Hannah Roberts go for the gold in the first-ever Olympic women’s freestyle finals at 9:10 p.m. ET on CNBC. Catch the men’s finals at 10:20 p.m. ET.
  • 🏊‍♀️ Swimming finals: Watch Caeleb Dressel go for his fourth gold in the men’s 50m freestyle. Also catch the women’s 50m freestyle, as well as the men’s and women’s the 4x100m medley finals. Coverage starts at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBC.
  • 🏌️ Men’s golf: Round 4 of independent stroke play tees off at 6:30 p.m. ET on the Golf Channel.