Radioactive Deepfakes

In Drew Harwell’s article on deepfakes in the Washington Post, he quotes Hany Farid, a Dartmouth computer science professor, on the problem with deepfakes: “If a biologist said, ‘Here’s a really cool virus; let’s see what happens when the public gets their hands on it,’ that would not be acceptable. And yet it’s what Silicon Valley does all the time… It’s indicative of a very immature industry. We have to understand the harm and slow down on how we deploy technology like this.”

Farid’s point (an unintentionally 2020 comparison) speaks to the way that new technology can be harnessed for malicious purposes. Technology initially designed for snapchat or the movie industry can and will be weaponized for everything from non-consensual porn to political manipulation. Just because a new software is revolutionary doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s benevolent. So, since I’m a history major, I want to talk about another discovery that was revolutionary, but dangerous: radioactivity. 

When Marie and Pierre Curie won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, they had no idea how uranium, their fascinating discovery, would be utilized. Marie used a small jar of it as a nightlight, and Pierre carried some around so he could show everyone its miraculous properties. Both of the Curie’s eventually died of radiation poisoning, and, to this day, their personal papers are too radioactive to be handled safely. As others built on the Curies’ discovery, they used it for everything from cancer treatment to the atomic bomb. 

Deepfake technology is a modern uranium. Software developers started carrying it around in their pockets and showing it off before its potential for misuse could be fully understood. We’re already seeing both the positive and, overwhelmingly, negative effects of this nascent technology. We can’t blame the Curies for their ignorance of radiation poisoning when they had only just discovery radioactivity. However, I do think the tech industry should probably know by now that people will use any technology they can get their hands on for malicious purposes. 

Image credit: https://www.biography.com/news/marie-curie-biography-facts

One thought on “Radioactive Deepfakes”

  1. This is an apt comparison, and also an interesting one! Sometimes I don’t even feel like the people who are creating Deepfakes care about the positive benefits like the Curies did–the only benefit I can even think of is to resurrect dead actors. The man in the video modulating to voice to say the other presenters were kissing each other was so gleeful, but his presentation literally illustrated the problematic aspects of his own tech. I feel like I would have to hear much more convincing evidence before I feel like deepfakes ever had a valid reason to be invented. (Not that my opinion matters)

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