June 23, 2021

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Lesson of the Day: ‘Your Loved Ones, and Eerie Tom Cruise Videos, Reanimate Unease With Deepfakes’

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Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

Featured Article: “Your Loved Ones, and Eerie Tom Cruise Videos, Reanimate Unease With Deepfakes” by Daniel Victor

Deepfakes, videos created with the help of machine-learning techniques to look as if they were real, have been developing for years. But two recent developments — a new tool that allows old photographs to be animated, and viral videos of a Tom Cruise impersonation — have shined new light on digital impersonations. While experts say these videos are not overly alarming in and of themselves, they raise questions about a future in which videos of real people are indistinguishable from computer-generated forgeries.

In this lesson, you will explore the technology behind deepfakes, how they are created and their uses, as well as their possible abuses. Then you will consider the implications of this technology: What are its pros and cons? What does it mean for our future?

Have you ever seen a deepfake video? If so, where did you see it? And did you think it was real or could you tell it was fake?

First, watch the two-minute deepfake video below created by Chris Ume that features Tom Cruise, the actor and star of the “Mission Impossible” series. Then respond to the following prompts:

  • What’s your reaction to the video? How convincing is it? What aspects are most realistic? What, if anything, leads you to doubt its authenticity?

  • What questions do you have about deepfake technology? What do you think Mr. Ume had to do to make this video so convincing?

Next, watch the behind-the-scenes video demonstrating how the deepfake video of Cruise was made and respond to the following prompts:

  • What did you learn about the creation of the Cruise deepfake? What was most impressive, surprising, fascinating or even scary?

  • What questions do you have about this new technology? What do you think might be its uses and possible abuses?

Read the featured article, then answer the following questions:

1. Why did the eerily realistic videos of Tom Cruise and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. receive so much attention? Do you think it was merited? What was significant about each?

2. “The digital imitation of Mr. Cruise was no easy feat,” writes Daniel Victor. Describe some of the important steps Mr. Ume used to create the TikToks. What new information did you discover about his process from the article? Why does Mr. Ume believe that the expertise required to use deepfake technology makes abusing it much harder?

3. Describe what the tool Deep Nostalgia does. What safeguards has D-ID, the company behind the tool, created to prevent its misuse?

4. What are some of the possible benefits of “synthetic media” or deepfakes, particularly for the advertising and entertainment industries, as well as for advocacy work? Give two examples from the article.

5. What are some of the possible dangers of deepfakes? Why does Nina Schick, the author of “Deepfakes: The Coming Infocalypse,” believe that the developing technology puts women and children at risk? How could deepfakes have a “destabilizing effect on global affairs,” according to the law professors Robert Chesney and Danielle Citron? Which of these arguments do you find most persuasive and why?

6. The article concludes with a discussion of consent — from those living and dead — who appear in deepfakes. Imagining a future in which our own voices could be used with assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, allowing us to stay connected with loved ones after our deaths, Henry Ajder, a deepfakes researcher, wonders:

“In what cases do we need consent of the deceased to resurrect them?”

“These questions make you feel uncomfortable, something feels a bit wrong or unsettling, but it’s difficult to know if that’s just because it’s new or if it hints at a deeper intuition about something problematic,” Mr. Ajder said.

Do you agree that the future of deepfakes is unsettling or problematic? How should we consider consent in the age of A.I.-generated images and videos? What other ethical issues emerged from the article for you?

Option 1: Watch and Respond to a Times Video.

Note to Teachers: The film contains two curse words. Please watch it in advance to make sure it is appropriate for your students.

In August 2019, The Times created the four-minute Opinion video “This Video May Not Be Real,” which we featured in our Film Club last year. In the video, Claire Wardle, an expert in online manipulation, addresses the question: How worried should we be about the growth of deepfakes?

Watch the film and respond to it in writing using the following prompts as a guide:

  • What messages, emotions or ideas will you take away from this film? Why?

  • How convincing is Ms. Wardle’s argument that deepfakes are no more scary than their predecessors, “shallowfakes,” which use far more accessible editing tools to slow down, speed up, omit or otherwise manipulate context? Do you agree that the real danger of fakes — deep or shallow — is that their very existence creates a world in which almost everything can be dismissed as false?

If you want to engage with this film further, you can participate in our Film Club conversation with other teenagers.

Options 2: Debate the Pros and Cons of Deepfake Technology.

How concerned should we be about deepfake technology? Do the benefits outweigh its possible dangers? What safeguards can we put into place to protect privacy and other abuses? In 2021, can we still trust our own eyes? Is seeing no longer believing?

Debate these and other questions as a class.

To help you argue the case for or against deepfake technology, you might start by looking at The Times’s Artificial Intelligence topics page, or begin with these articles:

Beyond The Times, you might also look at these resources:


About Lesson of the Day

Find all our Lessons of the Day in this column.
Teachers, watch our on-demand webinar to learn how to use this feature in your classroom.

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