In an alternate reality, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s Apollo 11 mission didn’t make it to the moon.
Something went wrong, perhaps when they were landing, and their ship, instead of setting down on the lunar surface gently, smashed into a crater. Both astronauts suffered cold and terrible deaths, a long way from home. Their bodies were left, never to be recovered, never to decay, upon the surface of the moon — a grim landmark and reminder of the consequences that come with reaching for the stars.
Luckily that wasn’t the case in this universe. Neil and Buzz made it to the moon safe and sound (or, at least, we’re told they did).
But now, thanks to modern technology and the power of science, we can peek into that alternate timeline and watch President Richard Nixon announce on national television that the Apollo 11 mission has failed and that both astronauts are dead. It is a tragic speech to see and a strange glimpse into history that never happened.
Of course, that’s not actually Dick Nixon on screen. And this video isn’t some artifact from a parallel universe — it’s actually a carefully digitized deep-fake video from MIT, an art project that took them nearly six months to create, called “In Event of Moon Disaster.”
And it highlights one of society’s strangest impending challenges: digitally created fake videos that are indistinguishable from the real thing.
“In Event of Moon Disaster is an immersive art project inviting you into an alternative history, asking us all to consider how new technologies can bend, redirect and obfuscate the truth around us,” wrote the creators of the video, on the project’s website.
An artificial intelligence technology known as “deep-learning” was used to mimic Nixon’s voice, mannerisms and facial expressions. It’s technology that is advancing at an alarming rate. Deep-fakes of much-lesser-quality than this Nixon one have already been used to undermine politics, and to confuse the general public.
By in large, though, most deep-fake videos made thus far have been for fun, for porn, or, more importantly, to demonstrate the real threat that deep-fake technology poses to our society. Our streams of news and information are already twisted up by corporate media giants, pushing agendas, scratching backs and bending the facts to their will. There’s enough “fake news,” and partisan news in this world already without deep-fake videos poisoning the watering hole with disinformation and/or news from alternate universes.
It is however, interesting, and fun on a certain level, to watch moments in history that never happened — like In Event of Moon Disaster. It’s real life, modern-day magic — a peek into a reality that never was. As long as people know and understand that what they’re watching never actually happened there’s no harm in putting technology like this to use in education or training exercises.
And, as Star Wars: Rogue One demonstrated with Carrie Fisher’s deep-fake cameo, deep fakes also have some use in entertainment.
But the more nefarious uses for this tech are far more prolific and insidious. When deep-fake videos truly become viscerally indistinguishable from real videos, the world’s sense of reality stands to lose reliability. We stand on that precipice, now — that world sits before us and soon it will be upon us, around us, bending and confusing our senses of reality.
Whether we’re ready for that or not, doesn’t matter. It’s really a question of how prepared we are for it when it arrives and how we deal with it once it’s here.