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July 21, 2020
 · 
4 min read

Moon disaster

Scientific American1 magazine produced a documentary film, “To Make a Deepfake,” on how an M.I.T.-led project, In Event of Moon Disaster, tells an alternate history of the Apollo 11 mission.

Back in the summer of 1969, there was a backup speech prepared for Nixon in case the Apollo 11 mission failed. Three days before launch, President Nixon’s speech writer, the legendary Bill Safire wrote:

The team at M.I.T.2 used this speech and available deep learning technology to synthesize an entirely fake news narrative around this, until-now, unused speech. I think the results are convincing, in a fascinating and frightening way. The grainy look and feel one would expect from a newsreel from 1969 contributes to the convincing nature of the synthetic elements. But, wow, Nixon comes back to life in front of my eyes!

It reminds me of back in the mid-90s discovering what Photoshop 2.5 could do with an image. I mean, no layers yet, which is really hard to believe, but my initial brush with Photoshop was indeed pure magic. I suppose this is the new version of that magical feeling.

It’s easy to imagine many nefarious ways to weaponize deepfake videos. One of the lasting bits that made an impression on me was a comment Boston University Law Professor Danielle Citron made regarding the stance one takes on deepfakes. How do we deal with them, do we ban them? She illustrates with a metaphor—a kitchen knife.

A knife is really safe and wonderful when you use it in the kitchen to cut up a chicken you're going to roast but it's actually a problem when you use it to stab someone.

—Danielle Citron

A lot of these projects do a great job of illustrating new concepts and technologies, which isn't always an easy task. I think the logical next step would be to better educate readers on how deal with the incoming deepfakes. How to we become more "media savvy," for lack of a better term? Though all communication demands a degree of critical thinking, video and film are arguably the most effective in conveying a message. Maybe because it hits two of our senses, sight and sound, or possibly due to the passive manner in which we consume it—it’s the laziest media to consume. Sure, there's a policy angle too, but corporations and governments have thus far been inconsistent, or negligent, in addressing the matter. In many cases, these bureaucracies are the actual perpetrators. I’d put more stock into empowering people with the tools to understand what’s going on in front of their eyeballs, I'm just wondering where the tools are. Oh, wait, they're here:

Art installation in Amsterdam

To bring it back to a happy place, the project was exhibited in a few cities, including Amsterdam. The press kit features an image of a re-created late-1960s living room which is dyn-o-mite!

To Make a Deepfake on YouTube

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  1. DelViscio, Jeffery. “A Nixon Deepfake, a ‘Moon Disaster’ Speech and an Information Ecosystem at Risk.” Scientific American, 20 Feb. 2024, www.scientificamerican.com/video/a-nixon-deepfake-a-moon-disaster-speech-and-an-information-ecosystem-at-risk1/. ↩︎
  2. Burgund, Francesca Panetta and Halsey. “In Event of Moon Disaster - Home.” In Event of Moon Disaster, moondisaster.org. ↩︎
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