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Deepfakes are not the only thing Synthetic Media has to offer

From deepfakes to voice modulators on Instagram, synthetic media is starting to become a normal part of our internet experience. The technology behind it is incredibly powerful and it has potential to be revolutionary.

Despite the negative media frenzy that followed viral videos of a fake Tom Cruise on Tik Tok, synthetic media offers a rich artistic language that goes way beyond those questionable deepfakes.

Before we talk about those possibilities, we need to understand what they are.

Tik Tok user @deeptomcruise | Screenshot from yahoo.com

What is synthetic media

Synthetic media is an umbrella term used to define images, videos and audios created or altered using artificial intelligence and machine-learning / deep-learning. You can also see it referred to as generative media and ai-generated media.

The media is created through coding and algorithms. They can be random or not, it all depends on the conditions put in their programming.

The possibilities for this technology are endless. Just like any creative expression, the final result will depend on whoever is behind it, or in this case, behind the computer. The most commonly known use of synthetic media are deepfakes. videos that change a person’s appearance through the use of machine learning. Actor Tom Cruise doesn’t have a Tik Tok profile, so it’s not really him in the videos shown on the screenshot above.

Given the fact that those were the first use cases to go viral and reach the mainstream, many already think synthetic media should be banned. But if you’ve come this far, then you already know that there is so much more we can gain from it.

Beyond deepfakes — What else can we do with synthetic media

Samsung Next places synthetic media as the third phase in the evolution of medias:

  • The Past: Old Media. Enabled mass distribution for a select few through TV, radio, and print. Enabling Technology: Broadcasting
  • The Present: New Media. Enabled democratized distribution for everyone through social media. Enabling Technology: The Internet
  • The Future: Synthetic Media. Will democratize media creation and creativity for everyone. Enabling Technology: AI / Deep Learning

What they mean is that synthetic media will offer a more democratic access to creative tools, more accessibility in order to empower art and artists.

Recently, more and more virtual influencers have been making their presence known, they even work with brands and celebrities like “normal” bloggers do. One of those influencers is Lil Miquela (@lilmiquela) a singer, youtuber and fashion model who came into existence in 2016. She has a very distinct personality and acts like any other 19 year old would, despite being barely five in the real world. Some companies even started making their own virtual influencers, like KFC and their updated version of Colonel Sanders. Digital characters developed through machine learning are not only a chance for businesses to humanize their brand, but also an opportunity for creators that don’t want to expose themselves.

In the film industry, synthetic media has allowed for beloved characters to return to the screen even after their actors have passed away. Like Star Wars’ Grand Moff Tarkin who made a comeback in 2016 Rogue One, years after actor Peter Cushing had passed. Existing software also allows changes and corrections to be made in post production, avoiding the high costs of having to re-record scenes.

Productions that cost millions in equipment and personnel might one day be made by a single person on a computer, artists and influencers will be able to scale their presence through avatars, post production will be made easy, anonymity will give voice to many creators.

We’ve already been seeing some of that take place and we can expect much more in years to come.

Generative art

Generative art is one of the branches of synthetic media, its roots go back to the 50s and the term describes artworks generated by algorithms. In a lot of cases the goal is to create randomness.

In 1957, the physicist and researcher Herber W. Franke printed a series of photographs that consisted of white light readings on a black background, created with an oscilloscope and a computer. Since then, many other artists followed and the possibilities presented by the technology grew.

In this perfect storm of art and technology, generative art had to be a part of the NFT revolution. In 2017, Larva Labs released the series CryptoPunks, 10.000 pixel art avatars algorithmically generated from a group of defined characteristics. Each one is unique, though some are rarer than others. Between the primary and secondary market, the Punks have made around U$ 1 billion.

Here at tropix we’ve had the pleasure to have Alexandre Rangel among our drops. The Brazilian artist uses generative art to redesign the city of Brasília combining video, programming and experimental music. You can check out the artist’s profile at tropix.io.

Deepfakes and ethics

The main problem with new technologies is the gap of time between it reaching mainstream and the ethical questions surrounding it being discussed.

The forefront of every new movement usually consists of enthusiasts, experts, researchers and trolls. It couldn’t be any different with synthetic media. It’s impossible to escape those who abuse what technology has to offer.

Given that @deeptomcruise was the first viral case to reach mainstream media, it’s understandable the stir it caused. The deepfake is done so exquisitely that many people thought the real actor was bluffing, but the power behind was not just the technology. The videos were made by Chris Umé, a VFX artist, and Miles Fisher, who in 2008 played Tom Cruise on Superhero Movie. The similarities between the actors and the experience of the artist were an important part of the final result.

Even if it’s not as simple as using an app — for now — synthetic media is being used for less than reputable reasons, despite low quality results.

On one hand we see fake news being spread using a technology most citizens know nothing about, and on the other we see women falling victims to a new type of revenge porn. Actress Emma Watson and activist Greta Thunberg have been victims of deepfakes of a sexual nature, while ex-presidents Trump and Obama have had their faces in videos saying things they’ve never said.

Technological advances need to be accompanied by healthy discussions about their possible uses and the ethics behind them. If we have such a great potential for creative expression, it’s our duty to inform and educate the public about its positive and negative sides.

The technology has no moral compass, it’s “merely” a bunch of code that is incapable of comprehending right and wrong. Human creativity, as we are very aware, knows no limits and is sometimes used for evil. There are some initiatives being made with the goal of identifying, notifying and curbing the misuse of synthetic media, what remains is defining what lines should not be crossed and what we, as a community, can do to help.

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