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How deepfakes could actually do some good

A new documentary highlights how the controversial technology can protect people.

Caroline McGinnes might be one of the few people in the world who knows what it’s like to lend someone a face. In a new HBO documentary, her eyes, nose, and mouth help cloak the identities of LGBTQ people in Chechnya, the predominantly Muslim republic in Russia. Essentially, McGinnes volunteered to become a deepfake, in a way few have seen before.

In Chechnya, LGBTQ people have faced significant persecution, including unlawful detentions, torture, and other forms of abuse. Because survivors can rarely reveal their own identities safely, the team behind the film Welcome to Chechnya turned to the same sort of technology typically seen in deepfake videos. They’re using artificial intelligence to overlay faces of volunteers on top of those of survivors. This application of deepfake-like technology can replace more traditional ways of keeping sources anonymous, like having them sit in a shadow or blurring their faces. The tech also helps better display the emotions of the survivors.

“Deepfake” has become a shorthand term for a variety of technological techniques, but it’s generally understood as artificial intelligence used to alter video and audio, making it look as though someone is saying or doing something they actually haven’t. The term comes from the name of a Reddit user who deployed machine learning to swap celebrities’ faces into porn videos without their consent. But a broader industry has begun to promote similar forms of AI-assisted media manipulation — sometimes called synthetic media — that aren’t necessarily as nefarious.

Like that deepfake video of Barack Obama (or Mark Zuckerberg or Kim Kardashian), the faces might not look quite right as deepfake videos tend to live in the uncanny valley. Welcome to Chechnya warns viewers that the technology is featured, and the “face doubles” can at times appear blurry, almost like watercolor. For the people whose faces appear in the film, the experience can be “pretty surreal,” according to McGinnes.

“They map out all the spacing on your face,” she told Recode, “and they match everything, eyes, your jawline, everything.”

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