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Bacolod City, Philippines Wednesday, January 30, 2019
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with Eli F.J. Tajanlangit


Rock & Refuge

Has the era of machines manipulating man started? Are we now in the ‘future’ that we once fantasized about, where we bend truth, blur fact and reality, and create new realities that humankind has not yet experienced?

While we have not yet even started recovering from the ill effects of fake news on our political system, here comes the report that advances in the development of Artificial Intelligence have made it possible to alter and manipulate video and audio clips easily. It is now in a software and will eventually be accessible to everybody – unless security experts like those in the Pentagon and lawmakers could quickly find a system that will counter the horrible and horrifying consequences such a computer program could bring. If we cannot even regulate much less stem, the flow of fake news in the Internet, I cannot imagine how this could be mitigated.

While this is a remarkable development, governments are now trying to find the means to ensure it is not weaponized or used for political objectives the way Facebook and other social media platforms were used in the last elections, the Philippines and the United States included. The result has been the election of Rodrigo Duterte here and Donald Trump there. Self-proclaimed friends, the two rode on the back of waves of fake news to their respective victories. No one of course can pinpoint with certainty if they had a hand in the proliferation of fake news in the Internet. One thing is sure, though. Once elected, the two turned their respective countries’ political systems upside down.

They still have time before their terms end, and we cannot yet judge them and their administrations. From what we have seen, however, they are now examples of how vulnerable the Internet is and how it can be used for purposes other than good.

And now come the “deepfakes.” Imagine Russian President Vladimir Putin proclaiming his country had indeed manipulated the US election. Or Chinese President Xi Jinping proclaiming China has already annexed the Philippines as its province. Or Trump giving up the Presidency, announcing it from the Oval Office. Too preposterous, you say. But what if these came with a video with their voices sounding exactly the same as the one we are familiar with?

The cynical among us may perhaps wait for further confirmation. But a sizeable portion of our population, like the16-million who voted for Duterte will surely believe this. Imagine the mass panic and chaos that could ensue.

I have seen a few examples and they were seamless and very, very good. Nothing indicated they were manipulated.

Of course this technology has been used in the movie for long time already. I remember Forrest Gump where one scene showed Gump [Tom Hanks] meeting President Kennedy in the White House. It was a real video clip of a WH meeting, except that Gump was inserted and the material was manipulated to make it appear he was shaking hands with Kennedy. It was seamless.

I also remember the famous video of Nat King Cole and his daughter, Natalie, singing Unforgettable together, made possible by the same technology.

To a certain extent, it was also used in the first Mano Po, in the montage showing the rise of the patriarch in the world of business. Here, a series of still shots showing him shaking hands and meeting tycoons such as Danding Cojuangco and John Gokongwei was shown. These were made many decades ago, and it did not raise as much concern as it does now, because the technology was very expensive then and not as developed as it is now. Then, the possibility that it could fall into the wrong hands and being used for evil ends were not as alarming as now.

A cheaper, but no less sharp or even sharper, version is now available. This is where defense people are having palpitations. The technology can be used by just about anyone.

The news is that the Pentagon is now rushing, running against time indeed, to see how best to ensure that this technology does not fall into the wrong hands, especially with elections scheduled in 2020 which is 11 months away.

As for us here in the Philippines, this could very well be used in the coming May elections. Since we have not made headway in controlling fake news, imagine how this technology could once again steal the elections from us.

God help us.*

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