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The Future of Fakery

By Wil Forbis

What is real? The question has plagued mankind since our beginning. Before we embraced civilization, answering the question correctly was often a matter of life and death. Was that shadow in the forest a lion… or an oddly shaped tree limb? Was that sound the grunt of a bear… or merely a trick of the wind? Knowing what was real had great benefit.

As man evolved, and as societies and governments developed, “real” took on an additional meaning. Documentation became important and it became key to know whether a document was “real.” If a tax collector showed up at your door with a lien for 30 gold pieces, it was urgent to know whether it was officially ordered by your government or a fraud. It was vital to trust that the currency in your hands was recognized as having value. This kind of reality was different from sensing the natural world around us but still very important.

The rise of art and commodities also expanded our definition of “real.” Was this a real Van Gogh or a fake? The difference could be millions of dollars. We learned to augment our senses with technology to determine whether various rarities--- relics, antiques, religious artifacts, and medicines---were what other people claimed them to be. 

Up until very modern times, most objects could not only be seen, they could be touched and felt. Documents could be physically examined and often had a difficult-to-counterfeit seal of approval. Or, if someone showed up with questionable stegosaurus fossils, scientists could examine the physical material under a microscope. 

But we now live in the digital era. Most modern documentation does not exist in a physical sense, but rather lives as a digitized formation, a collection of ones and zeros that can be easily copied and distributed. There’s no doubt that digitization and its offshoot, the Internet, have been great boons for society, but they bring new struggles in determining authenticity. Just ask journalist Dan Rather who basically destroyed his career when he got suckered by a forged document likely created on a computer. Or take a look at the ease with which fake news has thrived on the Internet.

If the current techniques for digital forgery concern you, I can only say, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” Around the corner is technology that will cause us to question documentation, video footage, audio files, social media posts/comments, and more. Consider…

  • The technology now exists to create realistic photographs from text descriptions.  As this report notes, “the prompt of “A yellow bird with a black head, orange eyes, and an orange bill” returned a highly detailed image. The algorithm is able to pull from a collection of images and discern concepts like birds and human faces and create images that are significantly different than the images it “learned” from.”

  • CGI is clearly getting closer to jumping over what’s called the “uncanny valley”---the chasm-like distance between computer images of humans that look realistic but still creepy and images that look perfectly natural. See this page for an example. 

  • AI created chatbots can now have seemingly normal text conversations with you on various social media. (This brings to mind Alan Turing’s famous “Turing Test.”) One author says, “I remember a time when you could safely assume that the person you were speaking to on Twitter was a human. Not, I’m afraid, any more. Twitter... is now a weapon of war, used to spread misinformation and propaganda. And the most insidious thing is that it’s extremely difficult to distinguish [which] account is manned by a real human, and [which] one isn’t.”

  • Digital face morphing technology now exists that can map the facial movements and expressions of one person to the video image of another. For example, you could map your facial movements on to a video of George W Bush (as seen in this video here.) Combine that with new, admittedly still flawed, technology that can duplicate anyone’s voice and you can see how easy it could be, in the near future, to create a video of the President of the United States grievously insulting the Prime Minister of England. Or to create and post a video of you appearing to mock your lover’s sexual abilities.

  • Companies such as Narrative Science and Automated Insights have already created AI “journalists” to write professional news stories. What if these tools are commanded to lie?

This technology could enable new levels of fakery from the cataclysmic to the mundane. Consider these possibilities.

  • CGI could be used to create images of false news events---anything from a Presidential assassination to animals escaping from the local zoo. Major news outlets may not run such reports but they could thrive as viral videos or features on paranoid “news” sites like InfoWars.

  • People could pick up their phone and hear a relative or friend begging for money only to later discover is was a con artist using voice-morphing technology.

  • Online reviews of products, services and venues (Yelp, Amazon reviews, etc.) could be overwhelmed by carefully disguised automated profiles offering realistic sounding assessments (pro or con.) Buyers would start to wonder whether they could trust the “wisdom of the crowd.”

  • Robust news web sites could appear with a seemingly large community of commentators. Careful examination would reveal that the whole site was constructed by robo-journalists and AI chatbots, perhaps under the order of a foreign government.

  • Revenge porn could be taken a step further as malevolent actors create CGI videos or stills of unsuspecting victims engaged in depraved sexual acts. (What do you do when someone sends your mom an image of you having sex with a donkey?)

The list of possibilities goes on and points to a harrowing future: a world where we cannot trust anything we see, hear or read. If nagging doubts about the veracity of reporting constantly plague readers then even the most venerated news sources may crumble. How could the population function if every email or phone message is questionable? Will we all become as neurotic as Jim Carrey’s character in “The Truman Show” once he begins to suspect that a hidden puppet-master is manipulating the strings of everyone around him?

Perhaps we can fend off this coming age of fakery. Technology has gained the ability to create illusions and so it will doubtless learn to detect them. At that point we will be locked into an arms race of sorts between the fakers and the authenticators. And suddenly the ability to see through the lies, to know what is real, will become quite valuable and likely be accompanied by a exorbitant price tag.

Man has long toiled in his struggle to determine the nature of what is around him. One might think that the digital era would make this struggle easier as finer grained bits of information ferret out the truth. But we also understand that this is an age of information overload. We are constantly assaulted by facts and observations. It’s possible the human brain simply doesn’t have the capacity to constantly verify each and every incoming statement. Our minds may prefer to collapse and drown in the comfort of sweet, sweet lies.

What do you think? Leave your comments on the Guestbook!

Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - acidlogic@hotmail.comVisit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.