The slippery slope of using AI and deepfakes to bring history to life


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(THE CONVERSATION) To mark Israel’s Memorial Day in 2021, the Israel Defense Forces musical ensembles collaborated with a company specializing in synthetic videos, also known as “deepfake” technology, to bring music to life. photos from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

They produced a video in which young singers dressed in period uniforms and carrying period weapons sang “Hareut”, an iconic song commemorating soldiers killed in action. As they sing, the musicians look at faded black and white photographs they hold. The young soldiers in the old pictures blink their eyes and smile back at them thanks to artificial intelligence.

The result is disturbing. The past comes to life, Harry Potter style.


Over the past several years, my colleagues and I at the Center for Applied Ethics at UMass Boston have studied how daily engagement with AI challenges the way people think about themselves and about themselves. politics. We have discovered that AI has the potential to weaken people’s ability to make ordinary judgments. We have also found that it undermines the role of serendipity in their lives and can cause them to question what they know or believe about human rights.

Now, AI makes it easier than ever to resuscitate the past. Will it change our understanding of history and, therefore, ourselves?

Low financial risk, high moral cost

The desire to bring the past to life in a vivid way is not new. Civil war or revolutionary war reenactments are commonplace. In 2018, Peter Jackson painstakingly restored and colorized footage from World War I to create “They Shall Not Grow Old,” a film that brought 21st century viewers to experience the Great War more immediately than ever before.

Live reenactments and carefully processed historical footage are expensive and time consuming endeavors. Deepfake technology democratizes these efforts, providing a cheap and widely available tool for animating old photos or creating compelling fake videos from scratch.

But as with all new technologies, alongside the exciting possibilities there are serious moral questions. And the questions become even more delicate when these new tools are used to improve understanding of the past and revive historical episodes.

18th century writer and statesman Edmund Burke argued that society is a “partnership not only between those who live, but between those who live, those who are dead and those who are to be born.” Political identity, he says, is not just what people make of it. It is not just a product of our own making. Rather, to be part of a community is to be part of a pact between generations – part of a common endeavor linking the living, the dead and those who will live in the future.

If Burke is right to understand political affiliation this way, deepfake technology offers a powerful way to connect people to the past, to forge that intergenerational contract. By bringing the past to life in vivid and compelling ways, technology animates the “dead” past and makes it more alive and alive. While these images stimulate empathy and concern for ancestors, deepfakes can make the past much more important.

But this ability comes with risks. One obvious danger is the creation of false historical episodes. Imaginary, mythologized and bogus events can precipitate wars: a historic 14th century defeat in the Battle of Kosovo still ignites Serbian anti-Muslim sentiments, even though no one knows whether the Serbian coalition actually lost that battle against the Ottomans.

Likewise, the second Gulf of Tonkin attack on US warships on August 4, 1964 was used to intensify US involvement in Vietnam. It turned out later that the attack never took place.

An atrophy of the imagination

It used to be difficult and expensive to organize fake events. Not anymore.

Imagine, for example, what strategically doctored deepfake footage of the events of January 6 in the United States could do to ignite political tensions or what a fake video of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention meeting appearing to denigrate COVID-19 vaccines would make public health efforts.

The result, of course, is that deepfakes can gradually destabilize the very idea of ​​a historic “event”. Maybe over time, as this technology advances and becomes ubiquitous, people will automatically wonder if what they are seeing is real.

Whether this will lead to more political instability or – paradoxically, more stability due to reluctance to act on the basis of what are perhaps fabricated events – is open to question.

But beyond the concerns about the mass fabrication of history, there are more subtle consequences that concern me.

Yes, deepfakes allow us to experience the past as more alive and, therefore, can increase our sense of commitment to history. But does this use of technology carry the risk of atrophying our imaginations – providing us with ready-made, limited images of the past that will serve as standard associations for historical events? Any stretch of the imagination can render the horrors of WWII, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake or the 1919 Paris Peace Conference in endless variations.

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But will people continue to exercise their imaginations in this way? Or will deepfakes, with their lifelike and moving portrayals, become the practical replacements for history? I’m concerned that the animated versions of the past may make viewers feel like they know exactly what happened – that the past is fully present to them – which will then avoid the need to know more about the event. historical.

People tend to think of technology as making life easier. But they fail to realize that their technological tools are always reshaping toolmakers – causing existing skills to deteriorate even as they open up unimaginable and exciting possibilities.

The advent of smartphones has made it easy to post photos online. But it also means that some people don’t enjoy the jaw-dropping views like they used to, because they’re so obsessed with capturing an ‘Instagrammable’ moment. The loss is also not experienced in the same way since the omnipresence of GPS. Likewise, AI-generated deepfakes aren’t just tools that will automatically improve our understanding of the past.

Nonetheless, this technology will soon revolutionize society’s connection with history, for better or for worse.

People have always been better at inventing things than at thinking about what the things they invent do to them – “always more skilled with objects than lives”, as the poet WH Auden put it. This inability to imagine the underside of technical prowess is not fate. It is still possible to slow down and think about the best way to deal with the past.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/the-slippery-slope-of-using-ai-and-deepfakes-to-bring-history-to-life-166464.


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