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What is a deepfake?

You’re probably familiar with the viral video series called “Bad Lip Reading,” where people ranging from the president of the United States to the Super Bowl MVP “say” some of the craziest things. These video dubs have the audio replaced and then aligned with the lip motion of the speaker—and are obviously fake.

But there is a newer AI technology that allows someone to not only replace the voice of the speaker but alter their facial characteristics in order to make them say whatever you want. While it might make for a funny YouTube video to share online, the potential use of this new technology will have disturbing and profound effects on society in the years to come.

What is a deepfake?

A deepfake is a video of someone saying and maybe even doing things that they never did in reality. These fake videos are created on computers using AI technology that allows the creator to use existing footage of an individual. These videos can be created by anyone who has access to the right computers, software, and knowledge. They are incredibly realistic and pose a real threat to society.

In April 2018, actor and producer Jordan Peele created a deepfake of former President Obama. It initially fooled a number of viewers online until Peele revealed the power of this technology. Many in government and the intelligence community are deeply worried about how it will be abused. As of today, we still don’t even have the ability to detect these fake videos, but developers are working furiously to design detection tools, which can be complicated. The speed at which our society operates means that a deepfake may do lasting and irreversible damage before it’s exposed.

How does it work?

Deepfake technology has been around for a number of years, but the recent advances have led to concern. Apple’s Memoji technology and Snapchat’s infamous video filters use a similar type of technology. These rudimentary consumer versions are designed to make you look like a talking robot, give you dog ears, or even swap faces with your friends. This technology has also been used for years in the production of celebrity sex tapes.

The name deepfake comes from the popular use of “deep” with artificial intelligence, which means that something is extremely complex, as opposed to shallow or simple. To create a deepfake, video content of one subject is analyzed and mapped by a form of artificial intelligence that utilizes a machine-learning technique called a recurrent neural network. A digital map is made of the subject’s face, mouth, and other defining features. The body of the subject may also be included, which allows the computer to place a person in a different place as well as changing what they say. Finally, a map of the new audio and video is created.

Then, an AI meshes the content together to make a hyper-realistic fake video. When the meshing occurs, the computer automatically blends facial features, light, and other elements to match the new and old content. As computers and algorithms become more sophisticated and powerful, it will become next to impossible to detect a fake video. This will inevitably lead to a deeper mistrust in the media we consume.

How might a deepfake affect our society?

Given the viral and unverifiable nature of content shared on social media, deepfake technology has the potential to wreak havoc on societal order and even disrupt international relations. Imagine a scenario where you are on social media and come across a video that many of your friends have shared. You click on the video and see the president declaring a national emergency or an international crisis.

Given the algorithmic nature and structure of our society, cable news channels decide to announce the “breaking news,” the stock market reacts immediately, and an already divided society turns on itself, assigning blame to someone who never said the things purported in the video. This doesn’t take into account what our allies and enemies across the world would begin to think or how they may prepare to engage, either. These fake videos could disrupt our entire society and world within minutes. While this scenario might seem like the plot of the latest action movie, deepfakes present this kind of a threat.

What do we do about them?

We are not well prepared as a society for the potential misuse of deepfake technology. Though it has yet to been used in a malicious way with widespread consequences, we don’t have the correct preparations in place for the possibility. In addition to lacking the resources to detect the videos, the U.S. doesn’t have legislation on the state or federal level to prosecute those using this technology with the intentions of disrupting society.

The day before the government shutdown in December 2018, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) introduced a bill that would criminalize the malicious creation and distribution of these fake videos. Sasse told Axios that these videos “can be tailor-made to drive Americans apart and pour gasoline on just about any culture war fire.” Other lawmakers such as Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and House Oversight Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) are also considering legislation on this controversial and potentially dangerous technology.

In addition, Bill A081155 was filed by the New York State Assembly last May and was the first of its kind introduced at the state level, but not without pushback from entertainment companies that declared the bill to be overreaching and hurtful to the creative storytelling industry that uses this technology in film production.

How should Christians prepare for this technology?

First, we should be aware of the subtle and often hidden dangers that rise out of technological development. Although technology is a gift from God that can be used in ways that honor him and help us love our neighbors, we need to be cognizant that these tools can and will be used in ways that seek to defame or denigrate our fellow image-bearers. We shouldn’t pursue technological innovation for innovation’s sake, but as a way of living out our calling by God to take dominion and subdue the earth (Gen. 1:26-28).

We are accountable to God for the ways that we steward the gifts he has given us and for the ways that we love our neighbors. There will always be ways to misuse and abuse technological developments, but being aware of these issues now can allow us to combat the rise of deepfakes and fake news. We have a responsibility to understand these developments in order to love our neighbors and allow our society to flourish in the pursuit of truth.

Second, Christians should pursue truth in all aspects of our life and test the validity of something before we share it online or in our communities. In our world of constant connectivity, we should think twice before sharing or commenting on a video that we see online. Given the recent explosion of fake news sites and the abuse of social media, Christians need to be wise about how we use our voice online, especially in light of how things can be taken out of context or edited to fit a political agenda.

Even though videos like the one of the Covington Catholic High School boys and Native American protestors at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial were not deepfakes, the explosion of anger and hatred online after the videos released did lasting damage to the credibility of news sources and the livelihoods of all of those involved. In a world of deepfakes, this danger will only be escalated. We must heed James’ advice to “be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (James 1:19).

The AI age is one of unparalleled growth and opportunity, but it is also an age of misinformation, split-second reactions, and hyper-realistic fake videos. Though we may long for simpler days, God has placed us in this time to be his ambassadors, proclaiming the kingdom of God until he returns. Our role in society is to be the type of people who reflect our Creator in our minds, speech, and actions.

Deepfakes will certainly be used for malicious purposes in the future, and we must rise above the fray and seek justice for those affected by deepfakes. So next time you see a video online that seems a little outlandish or peculiar, you might take an extra moment to consider whether or not is a deepfake. Chances are you will fall for one in the near future and won’t even know it.

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