I Don't Think Our Brains Can Handle Deepfakes


I don't mean to brag, but I had a pretty astute reaction to deepfake videos as soon as I found out they existed, and now New Scientist has backed me up, so I'm pretty on the ball.

Let me explain.

But first, do you know what deepfakes are? They are like the Snapchat face swap app on really good drugs: videos that use artificial intelligence to make it look as though a person is saying and doing things they never said or did - very convincingly. The issue isn't just that this is possible, it's been possible for a while, but it required insane amounts of time and computing power. Now it's easy and cheap for anyone with a little programming skill to do, and since we keep pushing STEM education on our kids, that's pretty much everyone under the age of 25.

So here's the problem: as soon as this really takes off, we won't be able to trust anything that we see. Up until now, if I saw a video of a person saying or doing something, I knew they actually said or did that thing. It might be edited, out of context, or otherwise manipulated to make me interpret it differently, but I could be pretty confident they actually said the words or did the actions depicted.


But guess what? Our brains aren't going to be able to keep up. If someone makes a video of Barack Obama saying that child slavery is the best way to build the economy while standing on a pyramid of children and eating chicken wings off a golden platter, I will never be able to unsee that! And even if I immediately confirm it's fake, a part of my brain will say, "yeah, but I saw him do it, so I don't fully trust him anymore."

I know you want to believe that you can tell your brain it's wrong and it will believe you, but it's just not that simple. Our brains hold onto stuff and just associating a person with a kind of action biases us against them. A headline saying, "Ms. Snow Did Not Kidnap or Murder Any Children or Puppies" would make us like Ms. Snow slightly less because now she is associated with kidnapping and murder in our minds, even though it said she didn't do it. (Sorry, I would look up links to prove these studies actually happened, but I'm too lazy. I learned it in multiple psych classes, though, so it's out there. You could probably look it up.)

That's just a news headline. We're talking about actual videos here, people.

So THEN WHAT HAPPENS??? Now that we know fakes are out there and our confused little brains are spending all their energy trying to convince themselves that the thing they actually saw with their own two eyes aren't real, what's going to happen to REAL STUFF??? Will we believe that's really happening??? Or will we adapt by just writing off extreme or unpleasant or strange information as fake?

Basically, we won't be able to tell what's real anymore, ever. We'll have to rely on our intuition (which is not super great at this kind of thing) and put lots of trust in sources who say they are being honest (which has historically never hurt us and always works out). Either way, trouble is brewing.

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