What are some truths about technology

Manipulation through technology - The end of the truth?

A couple of months ago a porn clip showing Israeli actress Gal Gadot having sex was posted on the online forum Reddit. The compromising video is not a leaked sex tape, but a fake.

A Reddit user named “deepfakes” took a photo of the actress and put it into a porn movie. All he needed was software that could be downloaded free of charge from the internet. With the right app, denunciation becomes child's play.

The lightness of appearance

If you look closely, you can see some blurring: the face is pixelated and box-shaped, the image transitions are rough, the head looks like a foreign body in some scenes. But what is amazing about fake porn is, on the one hand, the ease with which moving images can be retouched. And on the other hand, the immense potential for manipulation.

In times when 300 million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day and facial recognition systems are installed on every corner, the likeness can easily become the subject of revenge porn. Fakes of actresses like Jennifer Aniston and even Michelle Obama can be found on the relevant porn portals.

From Hollywood to your home PC

Until a few years ago, computer-generated images were only possible in elaborate Hollywood productions. But with the popularization of artificial intelligence, you no longer need expensive special effects to manipulate images, just software.

What next with the media?

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What is objective reporting? Is it even possible? Do we still need traditional media? Journalists René Scheu (NZZ) and Daniel Binswanger (Republic), media scientist Norbert Bolz and cultural journalist Catherine Newmark will discuss the philosophical regulars' table. Barbara Bleisch leads the conversation.

The TensorFlow tool used for this was made available as open source by Google in 2015 with the aim of improving machine learning. Since then, everyone has been able to access Google's image recognition algorithms.

Does the creature turn against its creator? Does the publication of the source code, with which fakes become child's play, run counter to the Group's stated goal of “organizing the world's information and making it accessible and usable for everyone at all times”?

Manipulated facial expressions

Techniques already exist with which image material can also be manipulated professionally. Researchers at the University of Erlangen have developed software with which the facial expressions and lip movements of a person can be recorded and transferred in real time to the video image of another figure.

The speaker's face is photographed from three directions. Software creates a 3D model that is placed over a person's likeness like a mask. When the person starts to speak, the software simultaneously translates the facial expressions and projects them onto the target person. So you can grin or twist the corners of your mouth while Vladimir Putin's digital doppelganger does the same.

Researchers at the Chinese search engine company Baidu recently presented a process that only takes a few seconds of source material to digitally reproduce a voice. For comparison: Adobe needed around 20 minutes of training material for this. Voices, images, videos - everything can be manipulated today with the right software.

Fake celebrities

A few months ago, a software team from chip manufacturer Nvidia developed a neural network that uses star portraits to produce fake celebrities.

Over a period of 18 days, the algorithm generated images that developed in millions of revision steps from a pixelated image to a finely inked portrait.

The close-up of a woman looks like a cross between Selena Gomez and Jennifer Aniston. But the soft, symmetrical facial features are not the result of evolution, but of a programming process - a machine artifact. The computer created a whole new version of starlets.

Democracy in danger

The amazing thing about the pictures is that you don't even recognize that they are computer generated. Apart from an artificial hairstyle and a cut-off skull, which looks a bit unnatural, one could easily mistake the people for unknown Hollywood or Bollywood stars. You can reproduce anything today: DNA, human voices and faces, opinions.

The question is what it means for society when social networks are flooded with mass fakes in words and images and opinion robots bombard services like Twitter with computerized propaganda.

Can such a democracy work? What happens when fakes are at some point so authentic that they can no longer be distinguished from real images? Do we perhaps have to say goodbye to objective truth?

"Information Apocalypse"

Justin Hendrix, the director of the New York Media Lab, predicts: “In the next two, three, four years we have to expect amateur propagandists who will make a fortune creating highly realistic, photo-realistic simulations.

If the trials work and people suspect that there is no longer an underlying reality for media artifacts, then we have a problem. It only takes a few big fakes to convince the public that nothing is real. "

The computer specialist Aviv Ovadya even warns of an "information apocalypse", a post-Enlightenment society in which the inflation of information is destroying the truth as the key currency of democratic systems. In a guest post for the Washington Post, Link opens in a new window, Ovadya asked the question: "What harms society more: When nobody believes anything anymore or everyone believes lies?"

The end of objectivity

In the libertarian slogan “Information wants to be free”, which is attributed to the hippie activist Stewart Brand and is still a doctrine of faith in Silicon Valley today, it is already there, the impending danger.

When so much information floats so freely that everyone can put together their own truth, there is a lack of objective test criteria. Freedom of information thus devalues ​​itself.

The statement made by US President Donald Trump is symptomatic: he now has doubts as to whether the voice in the scandalous video, in which he and the presenter Billy Bush chauvinistically talks about women (“grab them by the pussy”), is really his .

It's grotesque: Scientific progress, the technical possibility of digitally reproducing voices, allows a notorious twist of facts to question the authenticity of the video.

It is a perfidious method of manipulation and disinformation that only secret services used: sowing doubts, presenting "alternative" facts, silencing opponents. Evidence and counter-evidence mutually steal evidence. In the end, nobody knows what is actually true.

Is postmodernism to blame?

After the election of Trump, there was a debate among intellectuals as to whether the postmodern maxim that there is no truth, only positions and viewpoints, with the deconstruction of facts, paved the way for the allegedly post-factual age. But fake news and videos may just be a foretaste of what's in store for us in augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR).

Fully immersive experiences are possible in virtual reality. This means that the viewer has the impression that his body is part of the event. The scenery is programmed on the computer, which is a gateway for manipulation.

The virtual monsters that users of the AR game app Pokémon Go chased all over the world were basically also fake - in the sense that they did not exist in real physical space, but merely as a simulation on the smartphone screen.

With the spread of data glasses, the technology will be more and more integrated into our everyday lives. It would be conceivable to simply let a few virtual creatures dance on the kitchen table for general amusement or to move Tippkick figures with a wink instead of playing a board game with the family.

Digital expert Matthew Biggins predicts that we will get used to AR technology as part of our body, just as smartphones are. AR will feel like part of our normal eyesight.

"We are heading towards a point," writes Biggins, "where we will feel visually impaired without (AR), just as a nearsighted or farsighted person feels without glasses or contact lenses." Without the extension, the reality suddenly feels imperceptibly like a fake.

Baudrillard already suspected it

The sociologist Jean Baudrillard wrote in 2004, the year in which Facebook was founded, in his work “The Intelligence of Evil”: “You enter an area where events, through their production and broadcast in 'real time', are no longer actually take place - where they lose themselves in the void of information. "

For Baudrillard, the images have become independent in a simulation, they are empty signs that waft around in a “frenzy of self-reference”. The truth dissolves because fiction and reality can no longer be distinguished.

Even back then, Baudrillard wrote of “fake events” (sic!), As if he had foreseen the emergence of various fakes. "Whether these events are fabricated or not, they are staged by the silent epidemic of information networks."

Virtual vandalism

The performances are no longer academic glass bead games or science fiction fantasies. Last year, the Chilean artist Sebastian Errazuriz and his team from CrossLab Studio in New York smeared graffiti on a digital version of Jeff Koon's plastic "Balloon Dog", which Snapchat users displayed on their displays when they entered New York's Central Park .

It was an act of virtual vandalism with which Errazuriz wanted to take a stand against the commercial culture and occupation of virtual space. The artist could of course have opted for a more radical protest action and could have positioned an empty placeholder in its place and thus deleted the sculpture.

But he could also have replaced the sculpture with another, less subtle and subversive, and faked what was agreed as a pictorial representation in the semi-public space. This shows that what appears to be an extended reality, at least for the viewer, becomes a matter of programming.

Is the search for truth technologized?

Certainly image and audio files can be verified using metadata or cryptographic processes. The question is, however, whether social debates can work in this mode of computer science. Is the search for truth, the checking of facts, which is also a cultural technique, downgraded to a purely technical process? Do you have to be able to program to find out what is really behind the things in the world?

Facts are the discursive standard by which even the bitterest political enemies can come to an agreement. But when the epistemological foundations are washed out by a flood of fakes, the very foundation of democracy is ultimately eroded.

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