A Few Thoughts about Deepfakes

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A Few Thoughts about Deepfakes

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Someone from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence contacted me about a hearing they’re having on the subject of deepfakes. I can’t attend the hearing, but the conversation got me thinking about the subject of deepfakes, and how to handle them

What You See May Not Be What Happened

The idea of modifying images is as old as photography. At first, it had to be done by hand (sometimes with airbrushing). By the 1990s it was routinely being done with image manipulation software such as Photoshop. But it’s something of an art to get a convincing result, say, for a person inserted into a scene. And if, for example, the lighting or shadows don’t agree, it’s easy to tell that what one has isn’t real.

What about videos? If one does motion capture, and spends enough effort, it’s perfectly possible to get quite convincing results—say, for animating aliens or for putting dead actors into movies. The way this works, at least in a first approximation, is for example to painstakingly pick out the key points on one face and map them onto another.

What’s new in the past couple of years is that this process can basically be automated using machine learning. And, for example, there are now neural nets that are simply trained to do “face swapping.” In essence, what these neural nets do is to fit an internal model to one face, and then apply it to another. The parameters of the model are in effect learned from looking at lots of real-world scenes, and seeing what’s needed to reproduce them. The current approaches typically use generative adversarial networks (GANs), in which there is continual iteration between two networks: one trying to generate a result, and one trying to discriminate that result from a real one.

Today’s examples are far from perfect, and it’s not too hard for a human to tell that something isn’t right. But there’s been progressive improvement as a result of engineering tweaks and faster computers, and there’s no reason to think that within a modest amount of time it won’t be possible to routinely produce human-indistinguishable results.

Can Machine Learning Police Itself?

Okay, so maybe a human won’t immediately be able to tell what’s real and what’s not. But why not have a machine do it? Surely there’s some signature of something being “machine generated.” Surely there’s something about a machine-generated image that is statistically implausible for a real image.

Well, not naturally. Because, in fact, the whole way the machine images are generated is by having models that as faithfully as possible reproduce the “statistics” of real images. Indeed, inside a GAN there’s explicitly a “fake or not” discriminator. And the whole point of the GAN is to iterate until the discriminator can’t tell the difference between what’s being generated and something real.

Could one find some other feature of an image that the GAN isn’t paying attention to—such as whether a face is symmetric enough, or whether writing in the background is readable? Sure. But at this level it’s just an arms race: having identified a feature, one puts it into the model the neural net is using, and then one can’t use that feature to discriminate any more.

There are limitations to this, however. Because there’s a limit to what a typical neural net can learn. Generally, neural nets do well at tasks like image recognition that humans do without thinking. But it’s a different story if one tries to get neural nets to do math, and for example factor numbers.

Imagine that in modifying a video one has to fill in a background that’s showing some elaborate computation such as a mathematical one. Well, then the neural net basically doesn’t stand a chance.

Will it be easy to tell that the neural net is getting it wrong? It could be. If one is dealing with public-key cryptography, or digital signatures, one can certainly imagine setting things up so that it’s very

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