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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Deepfakes — realistic AI-generated audio, video, and images — are denounced as a threat to democracy and society by experts and lawmakers. So why are academics producing research that advances them?

Why it matters: Increasingly accessible tools for creating convincing fake videos are a "deadly virus," said Hany Farid, a digital-forensics expert at Dartmouth. "Worldwide, a lot of governments are worried about this phenomenon. I don't think this has been overblown."

Academic researchers are rapidly creating new methods for faking videos, photos, and audio. But they say their goal is not to destroy democracy, but to make new tools for creativity, and help improve other emerging technologies.

  • They call the technology "synthetic content generation."
  • In its benign form, researchers say, the techniques can be used in filmmaking, dubbing, or virtual reality, and also as training data to improve self-driving cars.
  • But they acknowledge that there is serious potential for harm when the technology is misapplied. In a paper published this summer, a pair of law scholars wrote:
"The volume and sophistication of publicly available academic research and commercial services will ensure the steady diffusion of deepfake capacity no matter efforts to safeguard it."
— University of Texas professor Bobby Chesney and University of Maryland professor Danielle Citron

Axios reached out to several academics who have published recent research that could be used to create deepfakes. Two responded.

  • Caroline Chan, an MIT graduate student who as a UC Berkeley undergrad created a system to simulate body movements in videos, said her research group has also worked on methods of detecting digital forgeries.
  • "As a community it is important to us to both advance the state of the art in content creation and be able to separate fake from real content with high confidence," she told Axios.

Aayush Bansal, a PhD candidate at Carnegie Mellon University, developed a technique to replace one person’s face with another's in a video.

  • But he said that it had positive as well as negative potential uses: One way of improving systems that aim to detect faked videos is by pursuing new ways of generating them, he said.
  • "Since these new approaches essentially work by learning a model of what real data looks like, they are also very good at detecting fake content that was manipulated in any way or created from thin air," said Chan.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Scoop: Gina Haspel threatened to resign over plan to install Kash Patel as CIA deputy

CIA Director Gina Haspel. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

CIA Director Gina Haspel threatened to resign in early December after President Trump cooked up a hasty plan to install loyalist Kash Patel, a former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), as her deputy, according to three senior administration officials with direct knowledge of the matter.

Why it matters: The revelation stunned national security officials and almost blew up the leadership of the world's most powerful spy agency. Only a series of coincidences — and last minute interventions from Vice President Mike Pence and White House counsel Pat Cipollone — stopped it.

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: Coronavirus deaths reach 4,000 per day as hospitals remain in crisis mode — CDC warns highly transmissible coronavirus variant could become dominant in U.S. in March.
  2. Politics: Biden says, "We will manage the hell out of" vaccine distribution — Biden taps ex-FDA chief to lead Operation Warp Speed amid rollout of COVID plan — Widow of GOP congressman-elect who died of COVID-19 will run to fill his seat.
  3. Vaccine: Battling Black mistrust of the vaccines"Pharmacy deserts" could become vaccine deserts — Instacart to give $25 to shoppers who get vaccine.
  4. Economy: Unemployment filings explode againFed chair: No interest rate hike coming any time soon —  Inflation rose more than expected in December.
  5. World: WHO team arrives in China to investigate pandemic origins.

John Weaver, Lincoln Project co-founder, acknowledges “inappropriate” messages

John Weaver aboard John McCain's campaign plane in February 2000. Photo: Robert Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images)

John Weaver, a veteran Republican operative who co-founded the Lincoln Project, declared in a statement to Axios on Friday that he sent “inappropriate,” sexually charged messages to multiple men.

  • “To the men I made uncomfortable through my messages that I viewed as consensual mutual conversations at the time: I am truly sorry. They were inappropriate and it was because of my failings that this discomfort was brought on you,” Weaver said.
  • “The truth is that I'm gay,” he added. “And that I have a wife and two kids who I love. My inability to reconcile those two truths has led to this agonizing place.”