Deep Fakes, 13 March 2021

In St John’s account of Jesus’ passion and crucifixion, Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” it is a question I regularly ponder when preparing for the Good Friday liturgy, when this part of John’s Gospel is read, but recently I have been thinking about it a bit more – from President Trump’s claims of “Fake News” through to suggestions that the pandemic is a hoax.

But, to be fair, it is a question I have always grappled with. Trained in Cybernetics, questions about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning have long fascinated me. At university I was intrigued by the Turing Test, in which a computer attempts to convince a human that they are having a (typed) conversation with another human rather than a computer, with the associated suggestion then that the computer was capable of conscious thought. For so long it was thought it would be impossible for a computer to trick a human in such a way.

Last Christmas, having failed (as is so often the case) to send Christmas cards in time, I discovered an app, JibJab, which would take a photo of someone and add them into a music video. I thought it was quite amazing at the time.

At Christmas, Channel 4 had some bad press for their alternative Christmas message, whereby a Queen impersonator voiced a message, while an actress mimed. Computer wizardry then transformed the actress to look just like the Queen. The message was to be careful of what you believe.

This technology has been improving at an incredible rate. By feeding lots of videos of a person into the computer it is possible to generate completely false – but believable – videos of a person. Likewise, a report just last week suggested that soon voice artists in cartoons could be replaced by a computer, if it studied enough previous recordings of that voice.

Over the weekend, though, I discovered two quite startling things. First was a new addition on the “MyHeritage” website called “Deep Nostalgia”, whereby you upload a photo of someone and it takes on a new life of its own. It was quite striking to see the statue of Our Lady in church come to life.

MyHeritage’s Deep Nostalgia showing the statue of Our Lady at Vale Church

As if that wasn’t enough excitement for me in the middle of the night when I was unable to sleep after receiving a COVID-19 vaccination, I stumbled upon Wombo, a lip-sync app. You upload a photo, or take a selfie, and choose which song you want that person to appear in. Someone on Twitter had great fun inserting most of the Church of England bishops into a video.

Technology really is advancing at an unbelievable rate, and it is difficult to know what to believe sometimes. And, with the growth of social media we so often get into the habit of only following (and reading the views of) those who are likely to think like us. And so any different opinions and thoughts might be missed completely.

What does it mean to exist, what does it mean to be human, what does it mean to have intelligence, are all important questions – and many of us have probably struggled with them to some extent or another while confined to home while unable to visit friends and family. And they can get us into a bit of a mess, with a distorted view of reality.

As we journey through (and, please God, out of) this pandemic may we be, as Jesus suggested in Matthew’s Gospel, wise as serpents but innocent like doves, able to step back to see whether something is true or not.For the record no, I was not singing by the beach; but yes, Jesus is truly God and truly Man – and that is real truth to keep hold of.

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