Deepfakes: The New Ticket to Immortality?
It’s common to look back at “the good old days” during difficult times, and in February 2022, the extreme nostalgia we saw at Super Bowl LVI was a sure sign of longing for a bygone era. For the halftime show, we got what felt like a live version of a burned CD featuring an array of classic hip-hop hits from the 1990s to early 2000s, complete with a somewhat pained-looking 50 Cent dangling upside-down to reenact his “In Da Club” music video. While the show was spectacular, it was impossible to ignore the fact that time has indeed passed for these stars — and some were not there at all, with Dr. Dre performing “California Love” without Tupac Shakur.
But beyond the halftime show, a number of commercials featuring a very similar wistful bent made use of the latest in technological wizardry to bring new life to icons from another age. A Crypto.com commercial spot showed Lebron James chatting to a CG version of his high school-aged self from 2003, whilst a deepfake brought us 1980s action star Dolph Lundgren in an absurdly silly Old Spice commercial. Much like 2012’s Coachella resurrected Tupac via hologram — which the halftime show failed to do — innovative use of cutting-edge technology is allowing aged stars and dearly departed celebrities to find new life. Ironically, it’s the tech of the future that could allow us to sate our hunger to return to the past.
As a futurist and investor who leveraged the early days of the web to revolutionize online ticket sales, I’m always keen to decipher how emerging technologies stand to change the world around us, especially when it comes to arts and entertainment. One astonishing advancement I’ve followed over the past few years is deepfakes.
We’ve all seen CGI try and fail miserably to wrest itself out of the uncanny valley. As detailed and refined as visual effects have grown, it’s still hard to capture the spark of human life that comes with a real person on film. Deepfakes overcome this dilemma by drawing on previous footage to create new composite imagery. By being fed thousands of images of a person, an artificial neural network can be trained to identify and reconstruct facial patterns onto a new actor’s face. So, you get the real-life quality of a flesh-and-blood actor with the past actor’s familiar features.
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Of course, many of us know of this technology through media coverage of its perils. Many voice concern and worries over the potential for fake news, where discerning true footage from manufactured becomes impossible, or where the tech is used in the manipulation of people’s likeness without consent for illicit content. However, I stand firmly in the camp of TikTok Tom Cruise deepfaker Miles Fisher, who describes the tech as “morally neutral.” In fact, I share the unusual stance that, if used correctly, deepfakes could not only be ethical, they could unlock an unprecedented amount of creativity and vision.
Despite their name, which makes them out to be a default tool for deception or fakery, deepfakes can in fact be a delightful instrument for indulging mass nostalgia, among countless other applications. For instance, the VFX wizards from the deepfake firm Deepcake, after licensing the movie star’s image, brought a younger version of Bruce Willis to life in an ad campaign. This application shows how deepfake tech could be used to de-age an actor. Given the prevalence of filters on social media, we are all complicit in the daily practice of digital touch-ups. We could argue deepfaking just takes it a step further, adding a little more polish and authenticity
Deepfake technology poses some immense creative potential. Beyond the exciting opportunity to resurrect old Hollywood icons in new works, deepfake tech has a number of enticing potential applications. By swapping out the voice and face of a big-time celebrity through AI, productions could significantly cut costs on talent’s day rates, travel, insurance and accommodations. It could also stand to completely change the way we look at foreign films: With perfect lip-syncing, dubs would no longer have the alienation effect of the audio failing to match the visuals.
Like most technology that evolves with each iteration, we’ve seen deepfakes have been improving exponentially over the past few years: They’ve grown more cost-effective, take less time to execute and are harder to spy than ever. With this innovative tech at our fingertips, we’re likely to see even more people playing around with its creative potential, with more inventive applications to be discovered.
For those anxious over deepfakes, I will conclude by noting that there will always be the potential for negative ramifications with any technology. But the future is ours to write. And arguably, a deepfaked 50 Cent hanging with agile aplomb from the rafters might have been more effective at reviving the simpler times of the early aughts, rather than a live performance highlighting how much time has passed.