SALT LAKE CITY — Computer-generated or manipulated photos and videos that appear to be living people — known as "deepfakes" — can be so realistic that they have raised concerns about international security and personal privacy.
Fake videos of former president Barack Obama calling President Donald Trump a bad word or depicting celebrities in pornographic scenes have demonstrated the potential nefarious uses of this technology.
But what about creating a deepfake of a person that doesn't exist at all?
A new crop of websites is displaying a lesser-known application of deepfake technology. Instead of using an archive of photos and videos of a real person to produce a convincing fake, computer programs can now create a composite of clothing, hair and facial features to build a brand new person altogether.
ThisPersonDoesNotExist.com offers an endless stream of realistic looking images of people old, young and of every race. Except the people in the images don't actually exist. The photos are completely computer-generated.
ThisCatDoesNotExist.com and ThisWaifuDoesNotExist.net use similar technology to spit out fabricated animals and anime characters, respectively. And ThisRentalDoesNotExist.com shows computer-generated bedrooms and kitchens to mimic Airbnb listings. It's not a scam; the website won't actually take your money. But it demonstrates the ability of deepfakes to fool people.
In the future, it's possible deepfakes could be used to create fake identities for "catfishing," promoting radical ideology or framing a politician to influence an election. Or a scammer could convince consumers to pay for a product that doesn't exist. So far, no such crimes have been committed.
"It may be that we all need to think a little harder going forward before deciding something is real," software engineer and creator of ThisRentalDoesNotExist.com, Christopher Schmidt, wrote on the website.
According to Business Insider, websites like ThisPersonDoesNotExist.com use something called a generative adversarial network, which pairs an algorithm that generates photos with an algorithm that judges whether those photos are real. The resulting images are all convincing enough to fool the computer and, for the most part, to fool humans as well.
ThisPersonDoesNotExist.com uses a specific algorithm called StyleGAN, which was developed by artificial intelligence company Nvidia, according to Business Insider. The code was first published in December in a research paper and is also publicly available on GitHub.
Schmidt created ThisRentalDoesNotExist.com in part because he wanted to see if it was possible for someone without any real experience in deepfakes and with no access to specialized computer resources to create something convincing enough to fool people, according to the website.
"None of the pictures, nor the text, came directly from the real world. The listing titles, the descriptions, the picture of the host, even the pictures of the rooms: They are all fevered dreams of computers," Schmidt wrote. "This is something that people should know about the state of the art of neural networks and AI: that they’re now sufficiently advanced that they can often fool folks, especially if they’re not looking very hard."
Schmidt said he was inspired by Philip Wang, former Uber software engineer, who released ThisPersonDoesNotExist.com earlier this month.
"I have decided to dig into my own pockets and raise some public awareness for this technology," Wang wrote in a public Facebook post. "Each time you refresh the site, the network will generate a new facial image from scratch."
Despite the fact that many are wary of the ability to create realistic photos of fake people, productive uses for the technology exist.
For example, a generative adversarial network was used to create "Portrait of Edmond Belamy," a piece of artwork depicting a fictional man that sold at an auction last year for $432,500, according to Christie's.
Gwern Branwen, the creator of ThisWaifuDoesNotExist.net, used StyleGAN to make new cartoon characters.
“I picked anime out of a mix of intrinsic amusement factor, availability of high-quality, data, and genuine difficulty for machine learning,” Branwen told Digital Trends. “Anime is not something you see in many published papers, and is something everyone can appreciate: bad results are funny, while good results are even funnier.”
While the results are far from perfect (several images on ThisPersonDoesNotExist.com show glitches in the skin or background), concerns about deceptive uses are real.
"Deepfakes are one of the newest forms of digital media manipulation, and one of the most obviously mischief-prone," Kevin Roose wrote in a 2018 New York Times article. "Lawmakers have already begun to worry about how deepfakes could be used for political sabotage and propaganda."
Glimpses of the tech's capabilities provide an "unsettling peek into the future," Roose added.
In other cases, the ability to deceive could come in handy.
On Tech blog TNW, Tristan Greene suggested, “the next time your grandmother asks when you’re going to settle down with someone nice, you can conjure up a picture to show them.”
If you want to test your ability to discern between real faces and fakes, you can visit WhichFaceIsReal.com.