Honestly, we should all be scared stiff.
While a recent viral video seems to show former President Barack Obama denigrating current President Donald Trump with curse words, it is actually a bogus clip doctored for a public service announcement to inform the public about so-called “deep fake” uses of Artificial Intelligence. Sophisticated technology now exists that can put you on YouTube, say, saying all kinds of crazy things you not only never said but never even actually said on YouTube.
I can’t explain because I’m not a techy nerd, but I can link you to this terrifying video clip. In it, former President Barack Obama appears to, among other things, endorse the vengeful nihilistic violence of villain Killmonger in the movie Black Panther, and (perhaps fairly) to dismissively characterize our current American president as a “complete dipshit.”
The “deep fake” is what the pseudo Obama calls this uber-deceptive technological capability, because, of course, uber-discreet Obama would never ever say such things as he said in the video, publicly anyway.
Such technology should completely unnerve everyone of every political stripe, religion, sports affiliation, philosophical school and Jane Austin Book Club. Which is to say everyone everywhere. Because the capability works both ways, it’s just as easy for your rivals to ruthlessly attack you with it as you them. It allows you to be “outed” by your enemies, for example, even if you have nothing to be outed for. It can now be done because it can. Any of us can be viciously slandered publicly by virtual “people” we don’t know from Adam and who don’t know us. Trash-talked and abused on the internet, TV and radio in every depraved manner imaginable, and unimaginable.
Don’t just take my word for it. Watch the clip. I swear you will never watch video clips the same way again.
In the clip, as pointed out in an excellent MSNBC explanation of how the technology is used, somebody else’s mouth and voice can be somehow spliced into an actual moving picture (in this case, Obama’s). An impersonator’s voice-over is a spot-on impression, and the former president’s mouth is forming exactly to the bogus words. The only hint that something might be amiss is a certain odd very slight blurriness around his mouth and a barely perceptible bulge in is cheek.
But going through my mind as I watched was the idea that Barack Obama was actually speaking on the clip as part of a political ad for some other purpose. It is that convincing. I had to ignore that knee-jerk part of my brain that instinctively thought it real.The really frightening aspect of this scary new world is how utterly realistic this stuff is. Astonishingly convincing, no exaggeration. Although the Obama clip is a complete con-job (if for an excellent reason, and very well done by Oscar-winning filmmaker Jordan Peele), it’s flim-flam would probably be undetectable by most people. Especially those for whom a clip seems to reaffirm their already deeply held beliefs. But even for the more discriminating, less doctrinaire, reasonably skeptical viewer, trust me, it would still be very hard for even them to spot ringers.
This totally matters in this “post-truth” moment in American history and culture, where our leader is not only demonstrably a compulsive (and purposeful?) liar but also very arguably pathological. Indeed, chronically spinning tall tales about everything (but mostly himself) is his MO. These times are also worrisome because slightly less than half the electorate (the “deplorables,” who are rapidly becoming despicables in their willful irrationality) seems incapable of disentangling fact even from demonstrably false fiction.
Consider how the Russians were able to throw our entire 2018 election on its head (and possibly help elect a “moron”) by using “fake news” and other bogus practices — even staging antagonistic and fake campaign rallies for both sides to stir the pot. This dodge was especially effective for the Trumpies.
If the Russians and their bots had also been able to put important political figures into phony news clips proclaiming outrageous things and voicing bogus policy ideas in fake radio soundbites, everything looking and sounding absolutely real, just imagine the potential for the destruction of truth and the ruination of the election. It was bad enough as it was.
If I were Vladimir Putin, I would get my best video-tech guys right on it for the 2018 mid-terms. Actually, that would be advisable for every candidate, too.
What really concerns me is that Americans are too often ill-equipped to think critically, to look at something logically dodgy and immediately say to themselves, “There’s something wrong here, but I can’t put my finger on it.” And then do some serious fact-checking. A first clue in this instance, for me, was that I don’t remember Obama ever saying “dipshit” or anything remotely similar. He was paragon of gentlemanly eloquence and rectitude (unlike his successor, for whom such a word is a rhetorical flourish).
But, as it is, I suspect most people unaware of the ruse would view the clip as real and make their assumptions about it to match what they already believe. The fence-sitters, however, might very well be manipulated into a twilight zone of malformed thinking. It’s a very, very dangerous capability we now have.
Regarding religion — the primary focus of Godzooks blog — I am apprehensive about how such technology could be effectively used to indoctrinate innocent children in superstition and convince traumatized adults that spiritual fantasies will solve their earthly problems. It would inject a double dose of turbo-charged deception.
I know most people worry most about technology like Artificial Intelligence and human cloning, but I fret about techniques that are far less sophisticated and thus far more accessible to far more ill-intentioned people. Especially in a nation where the very principle of truth is increasingly under mindless assault.
And this new video technology, practically flawless now, is getting even better by the second.