Can deepfake tech be used for good? Artist creates 'imaginary reckoning' for public figures

Deepfake technology can make it seem like people are saying and doing things they aren't. Can it be used for good? Deep Reckonings, a series created by artist Stephanie Lepp, imagines controversial public figures having reckonings using synthetic videos.

Alex Jones, Brett Kavanaugh, and Mark Zuckerberg featured in series

In explicitly-marked synthetic videos, artist Stephanie Lepp's series simulates public figures coming to personal, confessional realizations. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images, Chip Somodevilla/Reuters, Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press)

From superimposing unsuspecting individuals onto porn videos to manipulating images of politicians, deepfake technology — powered by AI — can be used in several unethical ways.

But can the same technology be used for good?

In her video series titled Deep Reckonings, Palo Alto, Calif.-based artist Stephanie Lepp uses deepfakes — a portmanteau of "deep learning" and "fake" — to simulate public figures coming to personal, confessional realizations.

"A Deep Reckonings video is an imaginary reckoning with some public figure who was credibly accused of wrongdoing and perhaps didn't have an authentic reckoning. So this is an imagined reckoning for them," Lepp told Spark host Nora Young.

How to imagine a reckoning

The series has featured Mark Zuckerberg having an imaginary reckoning with what Facebook has become in a message to his employees. Another episode imagines U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh reflecting on his handling of the sexual assault allegations against him. Meanwhile, U.S. radio host Alex Jones contends with his spread of conspiracy theories on a fictional episode of Joe Rogan's podcast.

Palo Alto, Calif.-based artist Stephanie Lepp. (Submitted by Stephanie Lepp)

"This is me trying to burrow myself into their heart and find their highest or most noble self and speak from that place," Lepp said.

For the last four years, Lepp has been producing a podcast called Reckonings that explores how people change. Then she discovered deepfake technology and produced an audio prototype of an imaginary reckoning with Pope Francis.

"I had never released fiction on the show, so I had no idea what listeners were going to say. To my surprise, listeners really loved it," she recalled. "I even heard from survivors of clergy sex abuse who, knowing that it was fiction, found it really helpful to hear the imaginary pope say the kinds of things that they would love to hear the real pope say." Pope Francis acknowledged the sexual abuse of nuns for the first time in 2019.

Watch: This fictional video portrays Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledging the pitfalls of the platform.

Videos clearly labelled fake

Lepp starts with writing a script. Deepfake audio and video can both be created synthetically, but Lepp opted to hire a voice actor. She also had a tech partner take footage of the intended subject to do what's called video dialogue replacement, which requires digitally manipulating the subject's mouth. When paired with scripted audio, it appears as if the subject is saying what the voice actor read from Lepp's script.

Kavanaugh's video involved mouth manipulation, Lepp said.

"So he says something new, which is whatever the voice actor is saying."

But Lepp said there are cues in the video to make it very explicit that they're fake, including in the intro and credits. The videos are also watermarked with the hashtag #DeepReckoning, which allows people to follow the project and find out what it means.

"I have each protagonist actually say in some way, 'I never said these words' or Mark Zuckerberg says 'this video is fake' … So each person actually says it," Lepp explained.

In the Kavanaugh video, Lepp made his face morph into the faces of Louis C.K., Bill O'Reilly, Charlie Rose — all of whom have been accused of sexual misconduct — to highlight that it's fake and indicate that the video isn't just about one individual.

"That's part of the superpower of this medium, is that we can know that it's fake and it still influences us," she told Young. "So I don't actually need to deceive … want to deceive. I don't need to deceive in order for this to have the intended effect that I wanted to have."

Besides creating a pathway for public figures and people in general to learn, change and grow in public, Lepp elaborated on one of the project's other main goals.

"We're all really used to the deny and deflect playbook … the job I've given myself is to create a new playbook, an alternative playbook … such that if Mark Zuckerberg were to watch his own Deep Reckoning, it would move him to say, 'Well, that's hot. You know, that is the me that I want to be.'"

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