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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

26 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Senate Republicans unveil $568 billion infrastructure counterproposal

Sens. John Barasso and Shelley Moore Capito. Photo: Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Senate Republicans formally rolled out the framework for their $568 billion counterproposal to President Biden's $2.5 trillion infrastructure plan on Thursday.

Why it matters: The package is far narrower than anything congressional Democrats or the White House would agree to, but it serves as a marker for what Republicans want out of a potential bipartisan deal.

House passes bill that would make D.C. the 51st state

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The House of Representatives voted 216-208 on Thursday to pass a bill that would grant statehood to Washington, D.C.

The big picture: It's the second year in a row that the Democratic-controlled House has voted to recognize D.C. as the 51st state. The bill now heads to a divided Senate, where it faces little chance of reaching the 60 votes necessary to send to President Biden's desk.

Dueling Van Gogh exhibits cause confusion across America

Photo: David Gray/AFP via Getty Images

Will the real Vincent Van Gogh please stand up? "Immersive Van Gogh" is coming to Orlando this fall. It's not the same as "Van Gogh Alive" at the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg. And definitely not "Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience" coming to Miami.

What's happening: If you're confused, so are other people who keep thinking they're buying tickets to the same exhibit.