by James Mathers
Cinematographer and Founder of the Digital Cinema Society
(Excerpted from the August 2021 Digital Cinema Society eNewsletter)
Deep Fakes — Not All Fun and Games Anymore
Artificial Intelligence is a powerful tool that can be used to speed up and improve the creation of visual effects, among many other uses in our industry and beyond. However, a Pandora’s box of ethical and security issues are now coming to the fore. The FBI recently warned private digital security firms that “Malicious actors almost certainly will leverage synthetic content for cyber and foreign influence operations in the next 12-18 months. Foreign actors are currently using synthetic content in their influence campaigns, and the FBI anticipates it will be increasingly used by foreign and criminal cyber actors for spear-phishing and social engineering in an evolution of cyber operational tradecraft.”.
For thousands of years we have relied on our eyes and ears to separate truth from lies and fact from fiction. As a democratic society, we already have our hands full trying to combat the rise of fake news. Now AI technology is on the verge of making it impossible to know whether what we are seeing and hearing is real or fake.
Deep learning technology is being applied to create deceptive audio and video content with hyper-realistic manipulation of digital imagery that can alter images so effectively it’s nearly impossible to tell real from fake. With millions of views, most people have probably seen this three year old example of President Obama giving a speech voiced by filmmaker/comedian Jordon Peele; if you haven’t: https://youtu.be/cQ54GDm1eL0
Deepfake examples are becoming more and more convincing. The doctored videos used to show up mainly as pranks, or to feature celebrities engaged in pornography; (porn has been a longtime accelerator of digital technology.) However, we are now seeing deepfakes entering mainstream media used in movies and even news broadcasts.
You can now find deepfake examples on YouTube that are on par with the CGI footage found in the original film the scenes were taken from; (a re-remastered version of the 2017 Wonder Woman starring Gal Gadot is reimagined with Lynda Carter, who played the lead character in the 1970s TV series of the same name: https://youtu.be/BwRmeT1lEFg
Examples such as these have led to concerns over how the tech could be abused to create realistic doctored videos, made for nefarious purposes. Recorded Future, a digital security incident-response firm, noted that potentially bad actors have turned to the dark web to offer customized services and tutorials that incorporate visual and audio deepfake technologies designed to bypass and even defeat security measures.
While online tutorials are a great way to access training on new technological software, such forums are being used to share tools and best practices for deepfake techniques and technologies for the purpose of compromising organizations. This is especially worrisome since so much of our work is now being done remotely as a result of the pandemic.
Some readers will be old enough to remember the Kentucky Fried Chicken advertising slogan, “The Colonel’s face is all over the place.” Well, now all of our faces are electronically spread across the internet via video conferencing, creating a wealth of audio and video data that can be used to make compelling duplicates. So, it might look like your boss is telling you via Zoom to make unauthorized transactions and drain the corporate coffers, but it could just be a hi-jacked avatar.
The last time I called my bank’s automated phone system, it asked if I wanted to record a voice verification by repeating the phrase “My voice is my password, please verify me.” However, I’m not so sure that is a good idea. In a report from Experian outlining the five threats facing businesses this year, synthetic identity fraud, in which cybercriminals use deepfakes to dupe biometric verification, was identified as the fastest growing type of financial crime. This will inevitably create significant challenges for businesses that rely on facial or voice recognition software as part of their identity and access management strategy.
There are other ways this promising technology is being used that should be a little concerning for performers. I’m happy that the last Fast and Furious feature to star Paul Walker was able to use his sibling as a double and seamlessly blend Paul’s face to finish the film after his untimely death. Or, that the same basic technology was used by J.J. Abrams, taking footage from The Last Jedi so that Carrie Fisher could appear in Star Wars: the Rise of Skywalker; a movie that was not even scripted at the time of her death. However, if I were still a professional actor it would make me a little uncomfortable to know that a “digitized” version of my likeness could be seamlessly manipulated to appear in any number of productions off into the future. And the same goes for musical artists, as in Tupac Shakur performing at a live event, the 2012 Coachella Music Festival, some fifteen years after his death. Yes, it’s cool technology, but it can also be a little scary.
It’s not all gloom and doom, though. AI is a great asset in speeding up and improving post-production. From visual effects to picture editing, all major post production software now takes advantage of this kind of AI technology. A fun example is Adobe’s Character Animator which integrates pretty sophisticated motion capture technology and is included as part of the Creative Cloud suite of software. It allows users to create animations in realtime with lip-sync, expressions, and gestures tied to your voice and movements with a simple webcam and mic. Although the animation is somewhat basic, it is easy to see how a little more sophisticated version for which the technology already exists, can become photo-realistic. https://www.adobe.com/products/character-animator.html#riverflow4
We don’t need to be afraid of AI. It’s not terminator robots or sentient machines who will conquer mankind and make us their slaves. It’s technology that can make our lives better, especially as content creators. Although I’m not a conspiracy monger, at the pace this kind of technology is advancing, I’m not sure how we are going to know that what we see today is original, unadulterated, “organic” content. As with a magician, it is rightly the filmmaker’s job to create illusion, but when these tools are used for other than entertainment content, we need to be very careful.