This editorial was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
For anyone who thought the Chinese spy balloon was weird, wait till you see the next phase in subterfuge that China already is using to put its own stamp on news events. China is creating videos of news anchors who talk about American gun violence or put Beijing’s spin on meetings between global leaders. But the anchors themselves are fake -- computer-generated avatars designed to look and talk like real humans.
Graphika, a research firm, first reported on China’s unprecedented use of computer-generated avatars to create online postings of propaganda that were then inserted into postings on Facebook and Twitter under the name “Wolf News.” Granted, it doesn’t take long to see that something isn’t quite right. The avatars’ eyelids blink, but their eyeballs don’t move. Their heads don’t nod or swivel like real humans. And the biggest warning sign is that the words don’t always match the mouth movements.
The anchors in the Chinese videos are part of stock avatar images offered by an artificial-intelligence company, Synthesia, that offers packages for individuals or companies to create their own training videos. All the user does is type out the words that the avatar is supposed to say. The user can even load in separate background video so that the avatar appears to be reporting, say, from a television newsroom or a war-torn city. The avatars can be made to say anything the user wants, including racist insults and blatant lies.
Another company, Deepfakesweb.com, offers celebrity avatars. One demonstration video has Barack Obama’s face superimposed on Morgan Freeman’s head and body, in prison uniform, as an inmate in the 1994 film “The Shawshank Redemption.” Another hilarious video superimposes the faces of Joe Biden, Donald Trump and news personality Chris Wallace as if they’re in the 2020 presidential debates. Except they’re on the set of a game show from the 1990s film “Billy Madison.” (The Wallace character berates Biden for his incoherent answer, while a frustrated Trump winds up pulling out a gun when he doesn’t win the game show.)
Funny now, but dangerous and scary for the future. Once perfected, the mouths will sync with the words. They can be made to state any lie that Chinese President Xi Jinping or the real Donald Trump wants them to say. The avatar presenter can cut to video of, say, Hillary Clinton admitting to a crime or Joe Biden stating that his son colluded with Ukraine to enrich the Biden family and hide their secret plan on Hunter Biden’s laptop.
The gullible – the same types who believe the 2020 election was stolen or that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax – won’t have to rely on the likes of Alex Jones to concoct wild conspiracies. They’ll have the video to prove it. Because they won’t be able to tell the computer-generated avatar from the real thing.
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