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This moon landing video is fake

August 7, 2020, 2:33 PM UTC

Former Richard Nixon sounds pained as he delivers the speech that he probably dreaded ever giving. In somber tones, Nixon reveals that the Apollo 11 moon landing mission has failed and astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin have been lost.

“In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood,” Nixon says in a video of the speech. “Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.”

No, you say, Armstrong and Aldrin weren’t lost—they made it to the moon and back again. “One small step for man” and all that. What in the world is this Nixon video?

Turns out it is a fake, a deepfake, as we now call A.I.-manipulated media. MIT’s Center for Advanced Virtuality created the false Nixon video using an A.I. app that combines real footage with an actor’s reading of an unused speech that was actually prepared in case tragedy struck. The video, titled In the Event of Moon Disaster, was cooked up last year, but the MIT team put it online this week to mark the 51st anniversary of the July 20, 1969 moon landing.

The MIT team says it’s meant to serve as a warning of the coming wave of impressively realistic deepfake false videos about to hit us that use A.I. to convincingly reproduce the appearance and sound of real people (you may remember this deepfake of former President Obama from a few years ago).

“It’s our hope that this project will encourage the public to understand that manipulated media plays a significant role in our media landscape, and that with further understanding and diligence we can all reduce the likelihood of being unduly influenced by it,” project co-leader Halsey Burgund says in a statement accompanying the video.

But my fear is just the opposite. Making such a convincing false video is an encouraging road map for those who would pollute the public discourse with deepfake “evidence.” Reuters recently uncovered deepfake photos of a freelance op-ed writer who seemingly doesn’t exist, for instance. Strap in, it’s going to be a bumpy ride for the truth over the next few years.

Aaron Pressman


This edition of Data Sheet was curated by David Z. Morris. Check out The Ledger, the fintech newsletter he edits weekly.


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