There has been a focus on technology in Congressional hearings this week when legislators heard from Facebook, Google, and Twitter about how Russian operatives wielded fake news on social media to influence American voters and political events. The future of fake news may already be upon us in an even more chilling way as seen in a video featuring a synthesized Barack Obama.

Science fiction fans and technology geeks have made much of a purported forthcoming ‘Singularity”: an apocalypse that will feature robots that have taken on the free will and feelings of human beings and thus start the persecution and extermination of the human race. Movies such as “AI” “Star Wars” and “Ex Machina” offer various and sometimes chilling scenarios. Colloquially, “AI” is a term that means "artificial intelligence," when it applies to machines that mimic cognitive functions that human beings associate with other human minds, such as learning and problem solving.

While androids are not yet among us, there exists AI technology that may utterly change how fake news or disinformation is produced by media outlets, and how it is received and analyzed by end users. There may not yet be androids hunting people down with x-ray vision on relentless steel legs, but their voices are already here.

At the University of Washington, a team of researchers have shown that it is possible to program artificial neural networks (ANNs) -- computing systems inspired by the biological neural networks that constitute human brains -- to recognize mouth shapes and sounds and then use the data to create photorealistic, high-quality synthesized video of a person speaking the audio of an unrelated sound clip.

It was at the SIGGRAPH -- an annual five conference on computer graphics and interactivity -- that researchers showed that they can create and disseminate false information: fake news. In a video they produced, the researched showed how they used audio and video of Barack Obama’s past speeches and appearances.

By using their audio editing and imaging techniques, they can produce videos of even heads of state saying anything a producer wants them to say.

In a summary of their findings, the researchers write: “Given audio of President Barack Obama, we synthesize a high quality video of him speaking with accurate lip sync, composited into a target video clip. Trained on many hours of his weekly address footage, a recurrent neural network learns the mapping from raw audio features to mouth shapes. Given the mouth shape at each time instant, we synthesize high quality mouth texture, and composite it with proper 3D pose matching to change what he appears to be saying in a target video to match the input audio track. Our approach produces photorealistic results.”

At CIO, Daryl Plummer, vice president and Gartner Fellow, said that the creation of counterfeit reality and fake news by AI currently outpaces the abilities of human beings or AI to detect it. Plummer said, “Counterfeit reality" is the digital creation of images, video, documents, or sounds that are convincingly realistic representations of things that never occurred or existed exactly as represented. In the past 30 years, the ability to create and disseminate content that has been subtly or overtly altered has greatly increased as huge numbers of people gained access to the internet with few controls on content distribution. The next wave of that distribution will be machine-generated content.”

At the Gartner symposium in October, Plummer said that by 2022, the majority of people in mature economies will consume more counterfeit reality and fake news than true information. The rise of "counterfeit reality" -- driven by AI -- will contribute to distrust of digital media, Plummer said. The former Soviet Union, and Russia, have long relied on producing fake news to advance political goals.

The technique of disinformation was perhaps most brutally revealed by photographs released by Soviet media during the years of Josef Stalin’s regime. Photographs that had appeared in the past in Soviet newspapers illustrating personalities who were once in Stalin’s favor were airbrushed so as to make them disappear when new versions of the photographs appeared after Stalin’s erstwhile allies had been murdered. More subtly, the Soviets besmirched the reputations of Pope Pius XII -- an outspoken opponent of Communism -- while advancing its worldwide agenda.

дезинформация, transliterated from the original Russian as dezinformatsiya or disinformation is false information spread deliberately to deceive. The word was not widely used in English until the 1980s.

Former Romanian secret police senior official Ion Mihai Pacepa and co-author Professor Ronald J. Rychlak exposed the history of disinformation in the 2013 book “Disinformation.”

Synthesizing Obama: Learning Lip Sync from Audio”  was produced by Supasorn Suwajanakorn, Steven M. Seitz, and Ira Kemelmacher-Shlizerman of the University of Washington.



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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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