On Thursday 11-Jul-2019 the Alan Turing Institute served up a real treat in the form of lecture by Professor Lilian Edwards1. To paraphrase Sonny Bono, Lilian Edwards is not just a professor, she’s an experience. Besides being a prolific scholar at the bleeding edge of law and regulation, she is one of the most engaging and charismatic speakers I have ever met. I first heard Prof. Edwards present at one of the New Scientist Instant Expert event series (of which I’m a big fan btw), and I have been her fan ever since.

After hearing a comprehensive and at times provocative lecture on legal and social aspects of AI and robotics (twice!) in 2017, in 2019 Prof. Edwards focused on something even more cutting edge: social and legal aspects of deepfakes.

Lilian Edwards regulating unreality talkDelivered in the stunning Brutalist surroundings of the Barbican and hosted by Professor Adrian Weller, the lecture started with revisiting the first well-known deepfake: Gal Gadot’s face photorealistically composited onto a body of an adult film actress in a 2017 gif from Reddit.

Most things on the Internet start with (or end, or lead to) porn – it’s simply the way it is. However, developing technologies which allow access to, streaming, or sharing of images of real consenting adults engaging in enjoyable, consensual activities is one thing (the keyword being in my personal opinion “consent”) – deepfaking explicit images of celebrities or anyone else is vulgar and invasive (try to imagine photos of your mom, daughter, or even yourself being digitally, photorealistically “pornified”, and then think how it would make you feel). As awful as that is, deployment of deepfake technology in politics is something else entirely. Deepfakes are likely the new fake news, albeit taken to a new level: a seamless audio-visual distortion of reality.

Prof. Edwards reminded everyone that image manipulation was deployed in politics pre-deepfake era – using very simple techniques with often very successful effects: the Nancy Pelosi video slowed down in order to give appearance of her slurring and seemingly drunk and the White House video of CNN reporter Jim Acosta. Furthermore, she pointed out that deepfakes are not necessarily the end of the road: they are just one (disturbing) element of seamlessly generated/falsified “synthetic reality”.

Among the many threats (“use cases”) caused by deepfakes, the one that resonated with me the strongest were:

  • Deepfakes are not just about presenting something fake as something real, they’re also about discrediting something real as fake.
  • Plenty of potential uses in both civil and criminal smears.
  • Deepfakes create plausible deniability for anything and everything.

Moving on to legal and social considerations, Prof. Edwards looked at plethora of existing and proposed legal and technological solutions across the US, UK, and EU, expertly pointing out their shortcomings and/or unfeasibility. What moved me the most was the similarity (at least in terms of underlying concept and intent) between deepfakes and revenge porn, which I find absolutely and utterly disgusting. Another consideration was the question of one, objective, canonical reality (particularly online): while it wasn’t raised in great detail (we didn’t take the quantum physics route), it that resonated strongly with me. Lastly (in true Lilian Edwards cutting edge/provocative thinking style) there was a question whether reality should be considered a human right.

In terms of big, open questions, I think 2 stands out particularly prominently:

  • What should be the strategy: ex ante prevention or post factum sanctions?
  • Whom to prosecute: the maker, the distributor, the social media platform, the search engine?

Overall, it was a fantastic, thoroughly researched and brilliantly delivered lecture (and at GBP 4.60 it wasn’t just the hottest ticket in town, but very likely the cheapest one too). You can watch the complete recording on Turing’s YouTube channel. You can hear me around the 01:10:00 mark, raising my concerns about deepfake-driven detachment from reality among younger generations.

[1] www.turing.ac.uk/events/turing-lecture-regulating-unreality