This quotation from the enigmatic Russell Brand seemed appropriate for the subject of today’s article: the impact of so-called ‘deepfakes’ on everything from porn to politics.
First, what exactly are ‘deepfakes’? Mark Wilson explains in an article for Fast Company:
In early 2018, [an anonymous Reddit user named Deepfakes] uploaded a machine learning model that could swap one person’s face for another face in any video. Within weeks, low-fi celebrity-swapped porn ran rampant across the web. Reddit soon banned Deepfakes, but the technology had already taken root across the web–and sometimes the quality was more convincing. Everyday people showed that they could do a better job adding Princess Leia’s face to The Force Awakens than the Hollywood special effects studio Industrial Light and Magic did. Deepfakes had suddenly made it possible for anyone to master complex machine learning; you just needed the time to collect enough photographs of a person to train the model. You dragged these images into a folder, and the tool handled the convincing forgery from there.
As you’d expect, deepfakes bring up huge ethical issues, as Jessica Lindsay reports for Metro. It’s a classic case of our laws not being able to keep up with what’s technologically possible:
With the advent of deepfake porn, the possibilities have expanded even further, with people who have never starred in adult films looking as though they’re doing sexual acts on camera.
Experts have warned that these videos enable all sorts of bad things to happen, from paedophilia to fabricated revenge porn.
This can be done to make a fake speech to misrepresent a politician’s views, or to create porn videos featuring people who did not star in them.
It’s not just video, either, with Google’s AI now able to translate speech from one language to another and keep the same voice. Karen Hao embeds examples in an article for MIT Technology Review demonstrating where this is all headed.
The results aren’t perfect, but you can sort of hear how Google’s translator was able to retain the voice and tone of the original speaker. It can do this because it converts audio input directly to audio output without any intermediary steps. In contrast, traditional translational systems convert audio into text, translate the text, and then resynthesize the audio, losing the characteristics of the original voice along the way.
The impact on democracy could be quite shocking, with the ability to create video and audio that feels real but is actually completely fake.
However, as Mike Caulfield notes, the technology doesn’t even have to be that sophisticated to create something that can be used in a political attack.
There’s a video going around that purportedly shows Nancy Pelosi drunk or unwell, answering a question about Trump in a slow and slurred way. It turns out that it is slowed down, and that the original video shows her quite engaged and articulate.
In musical production there is a technique called double-tracking, and it’s not a perfect metaphor for what’s going on here but it’s instructive. In double tracking you record one part — a vocal or solo — and then you record that part again, with slight variations in timing and tone. Because the two tracks are close, they are perceived as a single track. Because they are different though, the track is “widened” feeling deeper, richer. The trick is for them to be different enough that it widens the track but similar enough that they blend.
This is where blockchain could actually be a useful technology. Caulfield often talks about the importance of ‘going back to the source’ — in other words, checking the provenance of what it is you’re reading, watching, or listening. There’s potential here for checking that something is actually the original document/video/audio.
Ultimately, however, people believe what they want to believe. If they want to believe Donald Trump is an idiot, they’ll read and share things showing him in a negative light. It doesn’t really matter if it’s true or not.
‘The Next Backlash Is Going to Be Against Technology’(Foreign Policy) — “We’ve seen the backlash against globalization. If anything, the dislocations and the adverse labor market implications of artificial intelligence, automation, new digital technologies—the impacts of those will be even larger.”
Simply, Micromobility promises to have the same effect on mobility as microcomputing had on computing. Bringing transportation to many more and allowing them to travel further and faster. I use the term micromobility precisely because of the connotation with computing and the expansion of consumption but also because it focuses on the vehicle rather than the service. The vehicle is small, the service is vast.
Micromobility covers mainly electric scooters and (e-)bikes, which can be found in many of the cities I’ve visited over the past year. Not in the UK, though, where riding electric scooters is technically illegal. Why? Because of a 183 year-old law, explains Jeff ParsonsMetro:
You can’t ride scooters on the road, because the DVLA requires that electric vehicles be registered and taxed. And you can’t ride scooters on the pavement because of the 1835 Highways Act that prohibits anyone from riding a ‘carriage’ on the pavement.
It’s only a matter of time, though, before legislation is passed to remove this anachronism. And, to be honest, I can’t imagine the police with their stretched resources pulling over anyone who’s using one sensibly.
Electric scooters in particular are great and, if you haven’t tried one, you should. Florent Crivello, one of Uber’s product managers, explains why they’re not just fun, but actually valuable:
Cleaner and more energy efficient
More space efficient
Making the world city a better place
Force for economic inclusion
You might be wondering about the third one of these, as I was. Crivello includes this chart:
Of course, as he points out, you can prevent cars running into scooters, bikes, and pedestrians by building separate lanes for them, with a high kerb in between. Countries that have done this, like the Netherlands, have seen a sharp decline in fatalities and injuries.
Despite the title, I’m focusing on electric scooters because of my enthusiasm for them and because of the huge growth since they became a thing about 18 months ago. Just look at this chart that Megan Rose Dickey includes in a recent TechCrunch article:
One of the biggest downsides to electric scooters at the moment, and one which threatens the whole idea of ‘micromobility’ is over-supply. As this photograph in an article by Alan Taylor for The Atlantic shows, this can quickly get out-of-hand when VC-backed companies are involved:
This can scare cities, who don’t know how to deal with these kinds of potential consequences. That’s why it’s refreshing to see Charlotte in North Carolina lead the way by partnering with Passport, a transportation logistics company. As John R. Quain reports for Digital Trends:
“When e-scooters first came to town,” said Charlotte’s city manager Marcus Jones, “it left our shared bike program in the dust.”
By tracking scooter rentals and coordinating it with other information about public transit routes, congestion, and parking information, Passport can report on where scooters and bikes tend to be idle, where they get the most use, and how they might be deployed to serve more people. Furthermore, rather than railing against escooters, such information can help a city encourage proper use and behavior.
John R. Quain
I’m really quite excited about e-scooters, and can’t wait until I can buy and use one legally in the UK!
The Right Way to Regulate Electric Scooters(CityLab) — “After all, if a bicycle needs to meet minimum standards for forks and frames, then an e-scooter ought to meet minimum similar requirements for floorboards and stems.”