It’s July 16th, 1969. The Apollo 11 crew have completed their training, and they’re in the Columbia Command Module atop a Saturn V rocket, to this day the most powerful rocket ever built. At 9:32 EDT the rocket lifts off, delivering the crew into Earth orbit 12 minutes after launch.
After lift-off, the million spectators on the beaches, highways, and in the vicinity of the launch heave a sigh of relief. So do the 25 million Americans watching on TV, and the millions of others around the world watching, and listening on radio. The Apollo Program has not been one long string of successes. In 1967, three Apollo astronauts were killed when a fire broke out in their command module.
After one and a half Earth orbits, Apollo 11 fires its S-IVB engine and heads to the Moon. Then, Columbia separates from the spent rocket, turns around, and docks with the Eagle, which is still attached to the spent booster. Then the booster is cut loose on a trajectory that carries it past the Moon, and Apollo 11 heads for the Moon.
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On July 19th, the astronauts fire the spacecraft’s service propulsion engine and enter lunar orbit. The spacecraft travels behind the Moon, out of sight. It emerges, and in fact it orbits the Moon 30 times before landing. At 17:44 on July 20th, the Eagle module separates from the Command module, with Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong inside.
Then something goes wrong. There’s mayhem, an accident, the mission fails. They’re done for.
President Nixon has to address the nation, the whole world in fact. He already has his speech ready, right next to the speech congratulating the Apollo 11 crew if they were successful.
Nixon sits in front of the cameras in the White House, and reads his speech. “Good evening, my fellow Americans. Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace.”
Welcome to the world of Deepfake videos. Pretty convincing, isn’t it?
This Deepfake video is part of the In Event of Moon Disaster Project. The project comes from the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality. As their website says, “We invite you into this alternative history and ask us all to consider how new technologies can bend, redirect and obfuscate the truth around us.”
It’s all part of an exhibit at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam DocLab that takes the form of a typical American living room at the time of Apollo 11. That exhibit features over 30 interactive artworks, Virtuality Reality installations and AI experiments.
We’re entering an age where technology can produce very convincing deep fakes. This example shows how difficult it will be in the future to separate historical truth from fakes. Think of how world-renowned art is being faked all the time, for monetary gain. Deep fake videos could be ten times worse, and their effects much more far-reaching.
It’s already difficult enough to follow political events and international events with any degree of certainty. Competing nations and politicians want people to believe certain versions of reality that benefit them. Think of Russia interfering in elections, and United States influencing political outcomes in other parts of the world. That kind of manipulation is as old as history itself.
How can deepfake videos be used to influence people? That’s what the minds behind this project want us to think about.
Winston Churchill said that “History is written by the victors.” There’s a lot of truth to that. But deepfake videos have the potential to rewrite history, no matter who wrote it.
Joseph Stalin said, “Education is a weapon whose effects depend on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed.” Stretch the word education to include media like deepfake videos, and Stalin looks like even more of a visionary, if only an evil one.
Where will this technology take us? Are there any safeguards against it? There are already people that question bedrock facts in our society, like the Apollo 11 moon landings, the shape of the Earth, vaccines, autism, fluoridation, the death of Elvis and Hitler, and a thousand other things. Will nefarious forces employ deepfake videos to influence our beliefs around these things? There are no shortage of credulous people willing to believe things that aren’t true. This is what Stalin knew.
What about corporations? Some of them have been willing to obfuscate the truth, if not outright lie, to protect their profits. Volkswagen lied about their vehicle emissions, and the tobacco industry knew they were harming people but fought that conclusion tooth and nail. And those are just a couple that we know about.
How will deepfake videos change all of our discussions? How will our political processes be affected, our judicial systems, even capitalism itself?
Buckle up. It’s going to get interesting.