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.
"At one point, video content was considered more reliable, and had a higher threshold of trust," said Alethea CEO and co-founder, Arif Khan. "We think video is harder to fake and we aren't yet as sensitive to detecting those fakes. But the technology is definitely there."
"In the future, each of us will only trust about 15 people and that's it," said Phil Lelyveld, who serves as Immersive Media Program Lead at the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California. "It's already very difficult to tell true footage from fake. In the future, I expect this will only become more difficult."
How do we know what's true in a world where original videos created with avatars of celebrities and politicians can be manipulated to say virtually anything?
As the U.S. 2020 Presidential Election nears, the potential moral and ethical implications of this technology are startling. A number of cases of truth tampering have recently been widely publicized. On August 5, President Donald Trump's campaign released an ad featuring several photos of Joe Biden that were altered to make it seem like was hiding all alone in his basement. In one photo, at least ten people who had been sitting with Biden in the original shot were cut out. In other photos, Biden's image was removed from a nature preserve and praying in church to make it appear Biden was in that same basement. Recently several videos of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi were slowed down by 75 percent to make her sound as if her speech was slurred.
During a campaign event in Florida on September 15 of this year, former Vice President Joe Biden was introduced by Puerto Rican singer-songwriter Luis Fonsi. After he was introduced, Biden paid tribute to the singer-songwriter—he held up his cell phone and played the hit song "Despecito". Shortly afterward, a doctored version of this video appeared on self-described parody site the United Spot replacing the Despicito with N.W.A.'s "F—- Tha Police". By September 16, Donald Trump retweeted the video, twice—first with the line "What is this all about" and second with the line "China is drooling. They can't believe this!" Twitter was quick to mark the video in these tweets as manipulated media.
Twitter had previously addressed several of Donald Trump's tweets—flagging a video shared in June as manipulated media and removing altogether a video shared by Trump in July showing a group promoting the hydroxychloroquine as an effective cure for COVID-19. Many of these manipulated videos are ultimately flagged or taken down, but not before they are seen and shared by millions of online viewers.
These faked videos were exposed rather quickly, as they could be compared with the original, publicly available source material. But what happens when there is no original source material? How do we know what's true in a world where original videos created with avatars of celebrities and politicians can be manipulated to say virtually anything?
"This type of fake media is a profound threat to our democracy," said Reid Blackman, the CEO of VIRTUE--an ethics consultancy for AI leaders. "Democracy depends on well-informed citizens. When citizens can't or won't discern between real and fake news, the implications are huge."
In light of the importance of reliable information in the political system, there's a clear and present need to verify that the images and news we consume is authentic. So how can anyone ever know that the content they are viewing is real?
"This will not be a simple technological solution," said Blackman. "There is no 'truth' button to push to verify authenticity. There's plenty of blame and condemnation to go around. Purveyors of information have a responsibility to vet the reliability of their sources. And consumers also have a responsibility to vet their sources."
Yet the process of verifying sources has never been more challenging. More and more citizens are choosing to live in a "media bubble"—gathering and sharing news only from and with people who share their political leanings and opinions. At one time, United States broadcasters were bound by the Fairness Doctrine—requiring them to present controversial issues important to the public in a way that the FCC deemed honest, equitable and balanced. The repeal of this doctrine in 1987 paved the way for new forms of cable news channels such as Fox News and MSNBC that appealed to viewers with a particular point of view. The Internet has only exacerbated these tendencies. Social media algorithms are designed to keep people clicking within their comfort zones by presenting members with only the thoughts and opinions they want to hear.
"I sometimes laugh when I hear people tell me they can back a particular opinion they hold with research," said Blackman. "Having conducted a fair bit of true scientific research, I am aware that clicking on one article on the Internet hardly qualifies. But a surprising number of people believe that finding any source online that states the fact they choose to believe is the same as proving it true."
Back to the fundamental challenge: How do we as a society root out what's false online? Lelyveld suggests that it will begin by verifying things that are known to be true rather than trying to call out everything that is fake. "The EU called me in to talk about how to deal with fake news coming out of Russia," said Lelyveld. "I told them Hollywood has spent 100 years developing special effects technology to make things that are wholly fictional indistinguishable from the truth. I told them that you'll never chase down every source of fake news. You're better off focusing on what can be proved true."
Arif Khan agrees. "There are probably 100 accounts attributed to Elon Musk on Twitter, but only one has the blue checkmark," said Khan. "That means Twitter has verified that an account of public interest is real. That's what we're trying to do with our platform. Allow celebrities to verify that specific videos were licensed and authorized directly by them."
Alethea will use another key technology called blockchain to mark all authentic authorized videos with celebrity avatars. Blockchain uses a distributed ledger technology to make sure that no undetected changes have been made to the content. Think of the difference between editing a document in a traditional word processing program and editing in a distributed online editing system like Google Docs. In a traditional word processing program, you can edit and copy a document without revealing any changes. In a shared editing system like Google Docs, every person who shares the document can see a record of every edit, addition and copy made of any portion of the document. In a similar way, blockchain helps Alethea ensure that approved videos have not been copied or altered inappropriately.
While AI companies like Alethea are moving to ensure that avatars based on real individuals aren't wrongly identified, the situation becomes a bit murkier when it comes to the question of representing groups, races, creeds, and other forms of identity. Alethea is rightly proud that the completely artificial avatars visually represent a variety of ages, races and sexes. However, companies could conceivably license an avatar to represent a marginalized group without actually hiring a person within that group to decide what the avatar will do or say.
"I don't know if I would call this tokenism, as that is difficult to identify without understanding the hiring company's intent," said Blackman. "Where this becomes deeply troubling is when avatars are used to represent a marginalized group without clearly pointing out the actor is an avatar. It's one thing for an African American woman avatar to say, 'I like ice cream.' It's entirely different thing for an African American woman avatar to say she supports a particular political candidate. In the second case, the avatar is being used as social proof that real people of a certain type back a certain political idea. And there the deception is far more problematic."
"It always comes down to unintended consequences of technology," said Lelyveld. "Technology is neutral—it's only the implementation that has the power to be good or bad. Without a thoughtful approach to the cultural, moral and political implications of technology, it often drifts towards the bad. We need to make a conscious decision as we release new technology to ensure it moves towards the good."
When presented with the idea that his avatars might be used to misrepresent marginalized groups, Khan was thoughtful. "Yes, I can see that is an unintended consequence of our technology. We would like to encourage people to license the avatars of real people, who would have final approval over what their avatars say or do. As to what people do with our completely artificial avatars, we will have to consider that moving forward."
Lelyveld frankly sees the ability for advertisers to create avatars that are our assistants or even our friends as a greater moral concern. "Once our digital assistant or avatar becomes an integral part of our life—even a friend as it were, what's to stop marketers from having those digital friends make suggestions about what drink we buy, which shirt we wear or even which candidate we elect? The possibilities for bad actors to reach us through our digital circle is mind-boggling."
Ultimately, Blackman suggests, we as a society will need to make decisions about what matters to us. "We will need to build policies and write laws—tackling the biggest problems like political deep fakes first. And then we have to figure out how to make the penalties stiff enough to matter. Fining a multibillion-dollar company a few million for a major offense isn't likely to move the needle. The punishment will need to fit the crime."
Until then, media consumers will need to do their own due diligence—to do the difficult work of uncovering the often messy and deeply uncomfortable news that's the truth.
[Editor's Note: To read other articles in this special magazine issue, visit the beautifully designed e-reader version.]
Jamie Rettinger was still in his thirties when he first noticed a tiny streak of brown running through the thumbnail of his right hand. It slowly grew wider and the skin underneath began to deteriorate before he went to a local dermatologist in 2013. The doctor thought it was a wart and tried scooping it out, treating the affected area for three years before finally removing the nail bed and sending it off to a pathology lab for analysis.
I have some bad news for you; what we removed was a five-millimeter melanoma, a cancerous tumor that often spreads, Jamie recalls being told on his return visit. "I'd never heard of cancer coming through a thumbnail," he says. None of his doctors had ever mentioned it either. "I just thought I was being treated for a wart." But nothing was healing and it continued to bleed.
A few months later a surgeon amputated the top half of his thumb. Lymph node biopsy tested negative for spread of the cancer and when the bandages finally came off, Jamie thought his medical issues were resolved.
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. About 85,000 people are diagnosed with it each year in the U.S. and more than 8,000 die of the cancer when it spreads to other parts of the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There are two peaks in diagnosis of melanoma; one is in younger women ages 30-40 and often is tied to past use of tanning beds; the second is older men 60+ and is related to outdoor activity from farming to sports. Light-skinned people have a twenty-times greater risk of melanoma than do people with dark skin.
"It was pretty weird, I was totally blasted away. Who had thought of this?"
Jamie had a follow up PET scan about six months after his surgery. A suspicious spot on his lung led to a biopsy that came back positive for melanoma. The cancer had spread. Treatment with a monoclonal antibody (nivolumab/Opdivo®) didn't prove effective and he was referred to the Hillman Cancer Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, a four-hour drive from his home in western Ohio.
An alternative monoclonal antibody treatment brought on such bad side effects, diarrhea as often as 15 times a day, that it took more than a week of hospitalization to stabilize his condition. The only options left were experimental approaches in clinical trials.
"When I graduated from medical school, in 2005, melanoma was a death sentence" with a cure rate in the single digits, says Dr. Diwakar Davar, 39, an oncologist at Hillman who specializes in skin cancer. That began to change in 2010 with introduction of the first immunotherapies, monoclonal antibodies, to treat cancer. The antibodies attach to PD-1, a receptor on the surface of T cells of the immune system and on cancer cells. Antibody treatment boosted the melanoma cure rate to about 30 percent. The search was on to understand why some people responded to these drugs and others did not.
At the same time, there was a growing understanding of the role that bacteria in the gut, the gut microbiome, plays in helping to train and maintain the function of the body's various immune cells. Perhaps the bacteria also plays a role in shaping the immune response to cancer therapy.
One clue came from genetically identical mice. Animals ordered from different suppliers sometimes responded differently to the experiments being performed. That difference was traced to different compositions of their gut microbiome; transferring the microbiome from one animal to another in a process known as fecal transplant (FMT) could change their responses to disease or treatment.
When researchers looked at humans, they found that the patients who responded well to immunotherapies had a gut microbiome that looked like healthy normal folks, but patients who didn't respond had missing or reduced strains of bacteria.
Davar knew that FMT had a very successful cure rate in treating the gut dysbiosis of C. difficile infection and he wondered if a fecal transplant from a patient who had responded well to cancer immunotherapy treatment might improve the cure rate of patients who did not originally respond to immunotherapies for melanoma.
"It was pretty weird, I was totally blasted away. Who had thought of this?" Jamie first thought when the hypothesis was explained to him. But Davar's explanation that the procedure might restore some of the beneficial bacterial his gut was lacking, convinced him to try. He quickly signed on in October 2018 to be the first person in the clinical trial.
Fecal donations go through the same safety procedures of screening for and inactivating diseases that are used in processing blood donations to make them safe for transfusion. The procedure itself uses a standard hollow colonoscope designed to screen for colon cancer and remove polyps. The transplant is inserted through the center of the flexible tube.
Most patients are sedated for procedures that use a colonoscope but Jamie doesn't respond to those drugs: "You can't knock me out. I was watching them on the TV going up my own butt. It was kind of unreal at that point," he says. "There were about twelve people in there watching because no one had seen this done before."
A test two weeks after the procedure showed that the FMT had engrafted and the once-missing bacteria were thriving in his gut. More importantly, his body was responding to another monoclonal antibody (pembrolizumab/Keytruda®) and signs of melanoma began to shrink. Every three months he made the four-hour drive from home to Pittsburgh for six rounds of treatment with the antibody drug.
"We were very, very lucky that the first patient had a great response," says Davar. "It allowed us to believe that even though we failed with the next six, we were on the right track. We just needed to tweak the [fecal] cocktail a little better" and enroll patients in the study who had less aggressive tumor growth and were likely to live long enough to complete the extensive rounds of therapy. Six of 15 patients responded positively in the pilot clinical trial that was published in the journal Science.
Davar believes they are beginning to understand the biological mechanisms of why some patients initially do not respond to immunotherapy but later can with a FMT. It is tied to the background level of inflammation produced by the interaction between the microbiome and the immune system. That paper is not yet published.
It has been almost a year since the last in his series of cancer treatments and Jamie has no measurable disease. He is cautiously optimistic that his cancer is not simply in remission but is gone for good. "I'm still scared every time I get my scans, because you don't know whether it is going to come back or not. And to realize that it is something that is totally out of my control."
"It was hard for me to regain trust" after being misdiagnosed and mistreated by several doctors he says. But his experience at Hillman helped to restore that trust "because they were interested in me, not just fixing the problem."
He is grateful for the support provided by family and friends over the last eight years. After a pause and a sigh, the ruggedly built 47-year-old says, "If everyone else was dead in my family, I probably wouldn't have been able to do it."
"I never hesitated to ask a question and I never hesitated to get a second opinion." But Jamie acknowledges the experience has made him more aware of the need for regular preventive medical care and a primary care physician. That person might have caught his melanoma at an earlier stage when it was easier to treat.
Davar continues to work on clinical studies to optimize this treatment approach. Perhaps down the road, screening the microbiome will be standard for melanoma and other cancers prior to using immunotherapies, and the FMT will be as simple as swallowing a handful of freeze-dried capsules off the shelf rather than through a colonoscopy.
In Sydney, Australia, in the basement of an inner-city high-rise, lives a mass of unexpected inhabitants: millions of maggots. The insects are far from unwelcome. They are there to feast on the food waste generated by the building's human residents.
Goterra, the start-up that installed the maggots in the building in December, belongs to the rapidly expanding insect agriculture industry, which is experiencing a surge of investment worldwide.
The maggots – the larvae of the black soldier fly – are voracious, unfussy eaters. As adult flies, they don't eat, so the young fatten up swiftly on whatever they can get. Goterra's basement colony can munch through 5 metric tons of waste in a day.
"Maggots are nature's cleaners," says Bob Gordon, Head of Growth at Goterra. "They're a great tool to manage waste streams."
Their capacity to consume presents a neat response to the problem of food waste, which contributes up to 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions each year as it rots in landfill.
"The maggots eat the food fairly fresh," Gordon says. "So, there's minimal degradation and you don't get those methane emissions."
Alongside their ability to devour waste, the soldier fly larvae hold further agricultural promise: they yield an incredibly efficient protein. After the maggots have binged for about 12 days, Goterra harvests and processes them into a protein-rich livestock feed. Their excrement, known as frass, is also collected and turned into soil conditioner.
"We are producing protein in a basement," says Gordon. "It's urban farming – really sustainable, urban farming."
Goterra's module in the basement at Barangaroo, Sydney.
Supplied by Goterra
Goterra's founder Olympia Yarger started producing the insects in "buckets in her backyard" in 2016. Today, Goterra has a large-scale processing plant and has developed proprietary modules – in shipping containers – that use robotics to manage the larvae.
The modules have been installed on site at municipal buildings, hospitals, supermarkets, several McDonald's restaurants, and a range of smaller enterprises in Australia. Users pay a subscription fee and simply pour in the waste; Goterra visits once a fortnight to harvest the bugs.
Insect agriculture is well established outside of the West, and the practice is gaining traction around the world. China has mega-facilities that can process hundreds of tons of waste in a day. In Kenya, a program recently trained 2000 farmers in soldier fly farming to boost their economic security. French biotech company InnovaFeed, in partnership with US agricultural heavyweight ADM, plans to build "the world's largest insect protein facility" in Illinois this year.
"The [maggots] are science fiction on earth. Watching them work is awe-inspiring."
But the concept is still not to everyone's taste.
"This is still a topic that I say is a bit like black liquorice – people tend to either really like it or really don't," says Wendy Lu McGill, Communications Director at the North American Coalition of Insect Agriculture (NACIA).
Formed in 2016, NACIA now has over 100 members – including researchers and commercial producers of black soldier flies, meal worms and crickets.
McGill says there have been a few iterations of insect agriculture in the US – beginning with worms produced for bait after World War II then shifting to food for exotic pets. The current focus – "insects as food and feed" – took root about a decade ago, with the establishment of the first commercial farms for this purpose.
"We're starting to see more expansion in the U.S. and a lot of the larger investments have been for black soldier fly producers," McGill says. "They tend to have larger facilities and the animal feed market they're looking at is potentially quite large."
InnovaFeed's Illinois facility is set to produce 60,000 metric tons of animal feed protein per year.
"They'll be trying to employ many different circular principles," McGill says of the project. "For example, the heat from the feed factory – the excess heat that would normally just be vented – will be used to heat the other side that's raising the black soldier fly."
Although commercial applications have started to flourish recently, scientific knowledge of the black soldier fly's potential has existed for decades.
Dr. Jeffery Tomberlin, an entomologist at Texas A&M University, has been studying the insect for over 20 years, contributing to key technologies used in the industry. He also founded Evo, a black soldier fly company in Texas, which feeds its larvae the waste from a local bakery and distillery.
"They are science fiction on earth," he says of the maggots. "Watching them work is awe-inspiring."
Tomberlin says fly farms can work effectively at different scales, and present possibilities for non-Western countries to shift towards "commodity independence."
"You don't have to have millions of dollars invested to be successful in producing this insect," he says. "[A farm] can be as simple as an open barn along the equator to a 30,000 square-foot indoor facility in the Netherlands."
As the world's population balloons, food insecurity is an increasing concern. By 2050, the UN predicts that to feed our projected population we will need to ramp up food production by at least 60%. Insect agriculture, which uses very little land and water compared to traditional livestock farming, could play a key role.
Insects may become more common human food, but the current commercial focus is animal feed. Aquaculture is a key market, with insects presenting an alternative to fish meal derived from over-exploited stocks. Insect meal is also increasingly popular in pet food, particularly in Europe.
While recent investment has been strong – NACIA says 2020 was the best year yet – reaching a scale that can match existing agricultural industries and providing a competitive price point are still hurdles for insect agriculture.
But COVID-19 has strengthened the argument for new agricultural approaches, such as the decentralized, indoor systems and circular principles employed by insect farms.
"This has given the world a preview – which no one wanted – of [future] supply chain disruptions," says McGill.
As the industry works to meet demand, Tomberlin predicts diversification and product innovation: "I think food science is going to play a big part in that. They can take an insect and create ice cream." (Dried soldier fly larvae "taste kind of like popcorn," if you were wondering.)
Tomberlin says the insects could even become an interplanetary protein source: "I do believe in that. I mean, if we're going to colonize other planets, we need to be sustainable."
But he issues a word of caution about the industry growing too big, too fast: "I think we as an industry need to be very careful of how we harness and apply [our knowledge]. The black soldier fly is considered the crown jewel today, but if it's mismanaged, it can be relegated back to a past."
Goterra's Gordon also warns against rushing into mass production: "If you're just replacing big intensive animal agriculture with big intensive animal agriculture with more efficient animals, then what's the change you're really effecting?"
But he expects the industry will continue its rise though the next decade, and Goterra – fuelled by recent $8 million Series A funding – plans to expand internationally this year.
"Within 10 years' time, I would like to see the vast majority of our unavoidable food waste being used to produce maggots to go into a protein application," Gordon says.
"There's no lack of demand. And there's no lack of food waste."