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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

New York AG alleges "significant evidence" of Trump Organization fraud

Combination images of former President Trump and New York State Attorney General Letitia James. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images; Scott Heins/Getty Images

New York's attorney general filed a motion Tuesday seeking to compel former President Trump and his two elder children to appear for sworn testimony in her office's civil investigation into the Trump Organization's financial dealings.

Why it matters: Attorney General Letitia James revealed new details in the court filing and a statement on her office's investigation into the Trump Organization's business practices, including a preliminary finding alleging the company used "fraudulent and misleading asset valuations to obtain economic benefits."

3 hours ago - Technology

Ex-N.Y. Post digital chief files lawsuit alleging sexual harassment

Richard B. Levine) (Photo by Richard Levine/Corbis via Getty Images

Former New York Post editor Michelle Gotthelf is suing her former employer, its parent company News Corp. and two editors, alleging she was reprimanded after complaining to senior executives that she was sexually harassed by retired N.Y. Post editor-in-chief Col Allan. The N.Y. Post issued a statement denying any wrongdoing.

Why it matters: "I felt that I owed it to myself and I owed it to the news organization and the people who answered to me," Gotthelf, who was a long time editor at the N.Y. Post, told Axios in an interview.

Updated 4 hours ago - Economy & Business

Airlines warn of flight cancellations amid 5G rollout concerns

Emirates SkyCargo airline Boeing 777F aircraft. Photo: Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Emirates and Delta airlines announced Tuesday that the planned rollout of 5G services at certain American airports could affect flights.

Driving the news: AT&T and Verizon announced earlier Tuesday that they would delay this week's scheduled rollout of 5G signals near a limited number of airports due to continued concerns from the aviation industry.