Deepfakes – what are they, and how to recognise them

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What is the purpose of deepfakes?

Deepfakes can have a variety of purposes, ranging from de-aging actors in Hollywood blockbusters to waging dangerous propaganda wars against political rivals.

Deepfake technology can create convincing videos of people, including politicians and celebrities, appearing to say and do things that they never actually did. Deepfake programs are relatively accessible and easy to use and may soon play a major role in the movie industry.

Combine this with the fact that artificial intelligence systems can also recreate the audio of specific human voices in the same way, and a good deepfake becomes a powerful — and potentially dangerous — tool.

How are deepfake videos made?

Deepfakes are made with artificial intelligence systems, which use a process called deep learning to view and recreate media. In some cases, these deep learning systems use a generative adversarial network; essentially, the AI network is split into two rival components, which compete to learn and improve their output.

A deepfake usually involves video footage of a person, usually an actor. This is just the puppet onto which another face will later be projected. The artificial intelligence then views hundreds of images of a different individual and realistically recreates their features. The image of the new face is then mapped onto the movements of the actor’s, syncing expressions and lip motions.

Though deepfake AI is still being polished and improved, it’s already at a very advanced stage and can produce results rapidly with minimal human oversight.

Who can make deepfakes?

Anyone can make deepfake videos and images, using a variety of free apps like Wombo and FaceApp. These are simple programs that don’t produce extremely convincing results, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg.

Visual effects artists have been looking for ways to de-age older actors and even bring deceased celebrities back to the screen. We’ve seen attempts to de-age Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Terminator: Dark Fate” and to resurrect Peter Cushing in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”

These were not deepfakes but rather careful digital reconstructions built by visual effects artists. What’s striking about them is that many amateur VFX artists made their own versions of the relevant scenes from these movies and used deepfake software to generate even better facial recreations. This demonstrates an exciting and legitimate use case for deepfakes.

You can view some of these convincing AI-generated videos on YouTube along with numerous fake videos of public figures like Donald Trump, Barack Obama, and Tom Cruise, all recreated through this same technology.

Are deepfakes illegal?

Deepfakes are quickly garnering a bad reputation as tools of disinformation, fake news, and malicious adult content. They are not illegal in and of themselves, however.

There are legitimate uses for deepfakes – their role in digital effects in movies being foremost among them – but they can also be used for illegal practices, which is one of the main reasons they’ve grown the public consciousness recently.

Deepfakes are sometimes used to illegally create pornographic videos and images, often using the likeness of female celebrities and public figures. There have even been reports of deepfake nude bots which can automatically generate this material.

If this wasn’t bad enough, these fake videos can also be part of the propaganda strategy of governments to try and undermine confidence in their enemies.

How to identify a deepfake

It’s not always easy to detect a deepfake. While some are clearly fake videos, with facial expressions giving off a surreal uncanny valley effect, others are more sophisticated.

Image by pikepicture | Bigstockphoto

Several factors can help you determine whether you’re looking at a convincing deepfake video or not. If the video contains a face, focus your attention there and look for these giveaways:

Smooth or blurry patches

The connecting points where the deepfake video overlay meets the face of the person underneath can sometimes appear oddly smooth and textureless. Even on better examples, any sudden head movements or changes in lighting can momentarily reveal blurry facial borders.

Inaccurate non-facial features

If the video represents a public figure, like a politician, you can find images of that person to compare. Look at elements outside of the main facial features that might not have been altered; hands, hair, body shape, and other details that don’t sync up between the video in question and older, more reliable visual sources.

Unnatural movement

At least for now, deepfakes look more convincing when the subject isn’t moving too much. If the body and head of the subject seem oddly stiff, it could be a sign that the creators of the video are trying to make it easier for the deep-learning AI to map an image onto the person’s face without having to track too much movement.

An unconvincing voice

Deepfake technology is rapidly evolving, but for now, training computers to create audio simulations seems to produce poorer results than synthesizing convincing deepfake images and video.

The creator of the deepfake has to choose between two options if they want their subject to speak – either use an AI-generated voice or an actor who can impersonate the source material. You can compare the voice to the audio of a celebrity or politician speaking and you may notice some differences.

Article courtesy and first published by NordVPN

Related article: Deepfakes are good and getting better, which is bad and getting worse

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