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Artificial avatars for hire and sophisticated video manipulation carry profound implications for society.

Image by Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash

This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.

Alethea.ai sports a grid of faces smiling, blinking and looking about. Some are beautiful, some are oddly familiar, but all share one thing in common—they are fake.

Alethea creates "synthetic media"— including digital faces customers can license saying anything they choose with any voice they choose. Companies can hire these photorealistic avatars to appear in explainer videos, advertisements, multimedia projects or any other applications they might dream up without running auditions or paying talent agents or actor fees. Licenses begin at a mere $99. Companies may also license digital avatars of real celebrities or hire mashups created from real celebrities including "Don Exotic" (a mashup of Donald Trump and Joe Exotic) or "Baby Obama" (a large-eared toddler that looks remarkably similar to a former U.S. President).

Naturally, in the midst of the COVID pandemic, the appeal is understandable. Rather than flying to a remote location to film a beer commercial, an actor can simply license their avatar to do the work for them. The question is—where and when this tech will cross the line between legitimately licensed and authorized synthetic media to deep fakes—synthetic videos designed to deceive the public for financial and political gain.

Deep fakes are not new. From written quotes that are manipulated and taken out of context to audio quotes that are spliced together to mean something other than originally intended, misrepresentation has been around for centuries. What is new is the technology that allows this sort of seamless and sophisticated deception to be brought to the world of video.

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Jeanette DePatie
Jeanette DePatie describes herself as a professional “techsplainer”--taking complicated technologies and technological concepts and breaking them down into everyday language that everyone can understand. She has shared her entertaining and educational views on technology trends with companies like, McDonalds, Reynolds, Meredith, Better Homes and Gardens, Facebook and 20th Century Fox. She also proudly boasts that she once raised several million dollars in venture capital for a technology company with a presentation featuring two pieces of PVC pipe, a plastic funnel and a rubber chicken. She has been hired to describe technology by a host of Fortune 500 companies including Adobe, Apple, Intel, Microsoft, Monsanto, NTT Electronics, Panasonic, Pulitzer Samsung and Sony. She has spoken at CES, NAB, SMPTE CEATECH The Lean Startup Conference and a variety of Colleges and Universities.