Deepfaking Mona Lisa

These days, it’s hard to tell the real from the fake.  You never know if a quote, or a photo, or a Facebook meme is truthful or manufactured as part of some scheme or for some deep political purpose.  Video footage seems more reliable, but we’ve all seen examples of how careful editing can change the context and the perception.

mona-lisa-1883925Now, it’s going to get even harder to distinguish the real from the fake.  The development of artificial intelligence programming and facial recognition software is allowing for the development of increasingly realistic, seemingly authentic video footage that is in fact totally fictional.  The new word to describe the result is “deepfake,” which refers to the use of AI technology to produce or alter video to present something that didn’t occur in reality.  And the use of rapidly improving technology to produce deepfake video is erasing boundaries that used to allow humans to spot video frauds by focusing in on gestures, subtle facial movements, and other “real” human behavior that computers just couldn’t effectively simulate.  The avatars in even the most advanced video games still look like, well, avatars.

But that is all changing.  A team of engineers from the Samsung AI Center and the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow has developed new algorithms that are far more advanced and successful in replicating realistic human faces.  The software is the product of studies of thousands of videos of celebrities and ordinary people talking to cameras.  It focuses in on “landmark” facial features and uses a neural network to convert the landmark features into convincing moving video.  The new software also self-edits by critically scanning the individual video frames that are produced, culling out those that seem unnatural, and substituting improved frames.

As a result of all of this, the new software can produce realistic video from a single, static image.  Take a look at the video of a chatty Mona Lisa embedded in this article, created from the application of the new software to the single image in the famous portrait by Leonardo da Vinci, and then tell yourself that it doesn’t look astonishingly, and disturbingly, realistic.  If Mona Lisa can talk, it sure seems like we’ve crossed a new boundary in the ongoing battle of real versus fake.

Like any new technology, the AI that allows for the creation of realistic video footage from a single image could have positive applications, and negative applications.  It’s just hard not to focus on the negative possibilities in the current era of fakery and fraud, and wonder how this new technology might be used for political dirty tricks or other chicanery.  We’re all just going to have to be increasingly skeptical about what is real, and what is false and realize that passing the “eye test” might not be much of a test any more.

Advertisements

In Fear Of Facial Recognition

One of the features that was added to the technology mix during the period between the purchase of my old phone and the purchase of my new iPhone is facial recognition software.  During the set-up process at the Verizon store, I held the iPhone as if I were looking at messages, moved my head from side to side and up and down until the phone had acquired about a 270-degree look at my head and indicated that it had seen enough, and the facial recognition feature was activated.

facialrecognition_1-672x372Now, whenever I pick up the phone, the software kicks in automatically and substitutes for the entry of passcodes.  It’s pretty amazing technology, really, and it’s a lot faster and less clumsy than the passcode-entry process.  I really like the convenience element.

But . . . as a result of this Apple has got my face memorized and digitized and stored somewhere.  And, the modern tech sector world of information-selling and data-trading being what it is, who knows who else now has the capability to instantaneously identify my less-than-noble features.  My cell phone service provider?  Every Apple subsidiary and affiliate and technology partner?  The FBI, the CIA, or the Department of Homeland Security, or some Russian or Chinese hackers?

Recently San Francisco passed a ban on the use of facial recognition software by police and other agencies, and other cities are considering similar legislation.  The proponents of such measures tout them as a victory for privacy and a safeguard against governmental overreach that could conceivably allow governmental agencies to track citizens as they go about their daily lives.  Opponents note that facial recognition software can help the authorities solve crimes — as the article notes, the technology was used to identify a mass shooting suspect last year — and that it can help to secure our borders and airports.

I’ve long since concluded that while privacy is nice, in the modern world you have to make countless choices that can affect your privacy in different ways.  Do you pay with a credit card that tracks your purchases, or cash?  Do you use a cell phone that keeps track of your location?  Do you participate in social media and share some of your life through Facebook, Twitter, and the countless other outlets?  Have you traveled outside of the U.S. recently and returned to the country using one of those passport and facial scanning re-entry terminals?  It’s hard to argue, too, that a face that you show to the world each day, that appears on your driver’s license, and that is captured regularly by the various surveillance cameras positioned throughout American society, is something that is extraordinarily private.

All things considered, I’m not too troubled by the use of facial recognition software.  It’s the protection of other highly personal information — such as health information and financial information — that is of much more concern to me.

In Password Hell

Today I went to get a new iPhone.  The battery on the old one was running down at Usain Bolt-like speed, and clearly, it was time.

51yn54juiql._sx569_When I got to the Verizon store, the pleasant young guy who took care of me looked at my phone, chuckled softly, and noted that the phone was more than five years old.  That’s like taking world history back to the Pharaonic period — when cell phone data storage was miniscule, cell phone cameras were crappy, cell phone batteries were tiny . . . and, not incidentally, cell phones were a lot cheaper than they are now.

So, I had to decide how much I wanted to spend for my new phone.   It didn’t take me long to decide that I didn’t need to spend $1500 (which, amazingly to me, is what the Verizon store employee who is probably making not much over minimum wage confessed he had spent on his phone) and would be perfectly happy with the cheapest iPhone 10 they had — which was still incredibly expensive.  Then I had to pick a color (red), and a phone case (a clear Pelican) and then it was iPhone set-up time.  And that’s where the process ran off the rails.

“What’s your Apple password?” he asked pleasantly — and I felt cold, icy fingers of fear clutching my heart.  And then he asked for my iTunes password, and then for my gmail password, and the depths of angst and despair burrowed ever deeper into my soul.  “I’m not sure,” I said uncertainly.  “Well, what do you think it might be?” he asked, slightly baffled and no doubt wondering how could anyone who uses a modern phone wouldn’t have all of their passwords memorized and ready to use at any moment.  So I gave a few half-hearted attempts, using passwords that I know that I’ve used for something or another over the years — but there was no conviction in my efforts.  Sure enough, none of the passwords worked, and I got the accusatory buzzings and beepings that inevitably accompany password failure.  So the pleasant kid had to reset my passwords — passwords that will now promptly be forgotten, and vanish on the wings of the wind down the password memory hole.  It made the new phone process even longer and even more embarrassing.

As I left the store I realized that there is a reason I get a new phone only every five years.

The Day The C-J Died

Our J-School friend Snow recently changed jobs and was cleaning out his office.  As part of the process, he wanted to recycle a literal page of Columbus history — a framed copy of the last front page of the Columbus Citizen-Journal.  Rather than putting it into a box in the basement that never would be seen again, he asked if I wanted it, and I said sure.

img_8229Columbus used to be a two-newspaper town.  There was the Columbus Dispatch, of course, and the Columbus Citizen-Journal.  The Dispatch was the established afternoon newspaper, in the days when many newspapers were delivered around 4 p.m. so people coming home from work could catch up on the news before dinner, and the C-J was the morning option.  The Dispatch, owned by a prominent local family, was a dominant force, and its articles could shake the political foundations in downtown Columbus.  The C-J, a part of the Scripps-Howard chain, tried to be the lighter, spunky competitor.

But reading tastes changed, and when it became clear that afternoon newspapers were going the way of the dodo, the Dispatch decided it needed to become a morning paper to survive.  An agreement under which the Dispatch printed the C-J was due to expire, and after much hand-wringing the agreement was allowed to lapse.  In those pre-internet days, becoming an on-line newspaper was not an option, and with no way to print itself the C-J was inevitably doomed.  The Columbus Citizen-Journal therefore printed its last edition, shown above, on December 31, 1985, and Columbus officially became a one-newspaper town the next day.

At the time, that seemed like a very bad thing.  I marched in the “Save the C-J Brigade” during the 1985 Doo-Dah Parade, and thought that if Columbus wanted to be a big city it needed to have a second newspaper that could provide an alternative perspective.  And, of course, having two newspapers promotes competition and better reporting.  But it turned out that Columbus was just on the leading edge of a trend that has seen many newspapers turn off their presses and many big cities become one-newspaper towns.  In the digital age, newspapers struggle to compete with online news sources that deliver the news instantaneously and around the clock, and the online sources have rushed in to fill the content void that was created by the closure of so many daily newspapers.  Even the Dispatch, once so dominant, has seen its pages and circulation shrink.

Thirty-four years later, how many people in Columbus remember the C-J, or even know that at one time there was a second newspaper in town?  It’s important, of course, to hear alternative viewpoints — particularly in these politically divided days — but maybe daily print newspapers are not the best way, technologically and culturally, to supply those viewpoints.  In reality, for all of the dire predictions, Columbus has done pretty well as a one-newspaper town.

Fiddling With The Murk

The most recent episode of Game of Thrones featured an epic battle, but the presentation was so dark and murky that I felt like I was missing a lot of what was happening.  Hey, is that dragons tussling in a dim, inky cloud of ashes, or . . . what?  How in the devil is Arya running through a pitch-black tunnel?  I think that’s Sam screeching under the onslaught of the undead, but everything is so muddled maybe it’s not.  And am I supposed to be able to see the expression on Jon Snow’s face as he stands in the darkness, backlit by some feeble flames?

game-of-thrones-s08e03-759I couldn’t believe that HBO would air an episode of its top-rated show that was so difficult to see, so I decided the fault had to lie with the specific settings on my TV.  The TV is years old, I’ve long since misplaced the owner’s manual, and I haven’t tried to adjust the settings in as long as I can remember.  That meant just looking at the buttons on the TV remote — as opposed to the cable remote — to try to figure out which ones might change the video quality so I could rewatch the episode and hope to actually see what was happening.

There was a tiny button at the bottom of the remote marked “pict” that I figured probably referred to “picture” and not to Scotland’s first people, so I pushed that and saw that the options were things like “sports,” “custom,” “theater,” and “vivid.”  I have no idea what the different settings meant, but “vivid” at least sounded like it could help me decipher what was happening in the HBO murk, so I chose that.  But it seemed like there had to be a way to address the brightness of the picture, specifically, so I kept searching.  Another button labeled “menu” seemed promising, and I found that it included “brightness” and “contrast” and other options, so I cranked the brightness up to 100 and adjusted the contrast up to about 85, and then settled back to rewatch the GOT episode.

Alas, it didn’t really help — I was just seeing some lighter murkiness and was still struggling to determine exactly what was happening in all that blurry blackness.  And when I switched over to regular TV, I saw that my adjustments had really messed with the screen so that, for example, I had somehow cut off the bottom of the picture in sports broadcasts where the score is displayed.  How did that happen?  So I found another button that allowed me to shift everything back to the original factory settings, and found that that fixed everything — except the picture quality on the GOT episode.

Oh, well . . . I guess the Battle of Winterfell was just meant to be an exploration of darkness in the world.

Death At The Grand Canyon

There’s been another death of a tourist at the Grand Canyon National Park.  The National Park Service is reporting that a 70-year-old woman fell about 200 feet from the rim of the canyon.  The incident is the second accidental death at the Grand Canyon National Park this year and the third death by a fall in the area.

gc-north-rim-bright-angel-pt-hiker_dollar_680In an article on the death, Grand Canyon park staff are reported to encourage all visitors “to have a safe visit by staying on designated trails and walkways, always keeping a safe distance from the edge of the rim and staying behind railings and fences at overlooks.”  That’s good advice, but it’s not exactly easy to follow.  The Grand Canyon isn’t fenced in, and the lure of getting close to the edge of the rim, to take in the canyon in all of its dizzying, magnificent vastness, is hard to resist.

When we made our visit to the Grand Canyon some years ago with the boys, I remember inching my way closer and closer until I thought:  “Okay, that’s really close enough.”  I was probably a foot or two from the rim, like the person in the picture shown above, but it felt like I was on the edge of the precipice, and I didn’t feel the need to have my feet touching the edge so I could look directly downward.  I also tried to keep the kids from going right up to the edge.  If you do that, you leave yourself no margin for error, and any stumble or misstep could send you plummeting to your doom.  And, if your attention to where you are carefully placing your feet is distracted because you’re taking a picture with your phone — which apparently is what happened with at least one of the fatal incidents this year — the chances of a horrible mishap are just increased.

If you make a visit to the Grand Canyon, Devil’s Tower, or other cliffs, canyons, or rocky outcropping sites out west, you immediately notice that there aren’t many fences.  Fencing in the sites would not be feasible because of their sizes and configurations, and would ruin the views, besides.  The National Park Service trusts people to be mindful of their own safety and to avoid taking stupid risks — but of course, the sites were developed in the days before cell phone cameras and people mindlessly moving around, without looking where they are going, to try to get the perfect shot.

Faithful Steed

We’ve had our Acura SUV for a long time now.  I think it’s a 2011 model, and we bought it new.  We’ve carefully maintained it in conformity with the manufacturer’s instructions, have complied with all dealer notices of needed servicing, have gone through several sets of new tires, and have avoided any major mishaps or accidents aside from a few tiny side door dings.

It’s been a good, reliable car, one that we’ve driven across the country — to Maine and back, and down the east coast, and on a dog delivery trip to Texas, and on other long road trips.  It’s always gotten us to where we want to go, and we use it with confidence.  We’ve gotten attached to it, as people often do with cars.  We haven’t named it, but I’ve enjoyed driving it and how it handles, and I also like the fact that, when I approach the car from the front and see the grillwork, it always looks happy to see me.

But . . . it’s time.  The car has more than 150,000 miles on it, the air conditioning system is on the fritz — which would be a concern if spring and summer ever actually arrive in central Ohio, which admittedly seems unlikely at this point — and when we’ve driven new rental cars we’ve noticed that advances in car technology have left the poor old Acura in the dust.  Whether it’s rear-facing cameras, dashboard computers, or other high-tech gizmos they’re putting into vehicles these days, car companies have made some significant improvements in the last eight years, and we don’t have any of them.

So, it’s time.  Today, we’ll go car shopping for the first time in almost a decade, and take a look at what the auto manufacturers have to offer.  If we find something that strikes our fancy we may trade in Acura for a new model.  But before we do, I want to acknowledge and salute the faithful service of our faithful steed.