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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

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
1 hour ago - Economy & Business

An inside look at Intuit's Mailchimp acquisition

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

When Mailchimp recently agreed to be acquired by Intuit for $12 billion, we noted how it was the richest sale ever of a private bootstrapped company. Now we know more about why the Atlanta-based email marketing company never took outside funding.

The big picture: Mailchimp founder and CEO Ben Chestnut tells Axios that it was all about timing.

"Noticias Telemundo" names Julio Vaqueiro as new anchor

Julio Vaqueiro. Photo: Noticias Telemundo

Emmy award-winning journalist Julio Vaqueiro will become the new anchor of "Noticias Telemundo," the network's daily Spanish-language evening newscast, Noticias Telemundo announced Thursday.

The big picture: Vaqueiro replaces José Díaz-Balart, who is returning to MSNBC later this month to host a new show as NBC seeks to add more diverse voices to its English-language news programs.

Al Gore's Climate TRACE finds vast undercounts of emissions

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A high-tech independent effort to track greenhouse gas emissions from every country, industrial facility and power plant announced its first results on Monday.

Why it matters: Climate TRACE utilizes satellite data, machine learning and artificial intelligence to determine greenhouse gas emissions globally. It aims usher in an era of "radical transparency" and a more enforceable climate agreement by giving nonprofits, governments and the UN actionable intelligence to track and crack down on polluters.