The Business of “Fake” Reality

More and more, it seems like the word “fake” is cropping up in our public discourse. Whether that refers to Trump’s favorite phrase “fake news” or uncanny and disturbing “deepfakes,” fakeness is rapidly pervading various forms of multimedia. In the past, people could certainly have created work anonymously, pseudonymously, or even forge work under someone else’s name (whether for slander or profit). However, those people could not convincingly make words come out of someone else’s mouth. Today, they can.

With modern technology, it’s relatively easy to doctor audio and video to make yourself look or sound like someone else. Check out the video below to see how simple and convincing it can be.

This is a deep fake of Obama, put together as a PSA about the technology.

Beyond this manipulation of media, however, some people are coming up now with fake influencers. These are completely virtual models generated by code; they’re not real people at all. And yet, folks are making money off of these models as if they were real.

According to the blog The Fashion Law, Louis Vuitton used the Final Fantasy character Lightning as a model in 2016. Balmain has a campaign featuring CGI models Shudu, Margot, and Zhi. If this trend continues, we should expect to see such “fake” models leaving the rarefied realm of high fashion and going more mainstream.

Fake influencers in a Balmain ad campaign
Margot, Shudu, and Zhi, for Balmain.

In my last blog post before my break, Thinking About Apps Inside of VR, I spoke about the gap between visual fidelity today and in the future: 

VR today is nowhere near the resolution of the human eye. If you think of our eyes as video cameras, they operate at 576 megapixels. Even a new VR headset from the stealth mode startup Varjo operating at 70 megapixels doesn’t come close. So we have a ways to go to get headsets up to snuff; however, I definitely expect it to happen as the tech matures.

If we can expect image & video resolution to go up drastically in the future, it’s only a matter of time until high-fidelity “fake” humans become mainstream. And if we look at Sophia by Hanson Robotics, we can see that fake humans are not just relegated to the digital world. 

Sophia, a "human-like" robot.
Here’s an express train to the Uncanny Valley.

From this, we can infer that there’s an economy being built around fakes. One of the biggest drivers of this is that it’s much cheaper to use fakes for profit; you don’t have to pay Shudu or Sophia for anything. And if brands are willing to pay to have CGI models in their campaigns or to fly Sophia around to world to conferences, it seems that we’re on the cusp of something new.

I believe this “fake” economy will extend far beyond what we can conceive of now. We might even conceptualize chatbots today as part of it; people actually talk to chatbots as if they’re humans, according to customer interviews I did as a consultant.

So beyond fake news, alternative facts, deepfakes, fake influencers, and chatbots acting as human fascimiles, what might we expect? I think the endgame of this fake economy will ultimately be the production of fake humans in physical reality.

While this sounds far-fetched, the sex toy industry is doing its utmost to build dolls that cross the uncanny valley. And that industry is often on the bleeding edge of technology. So moving forward, as machine learning, 3D printing, and other related technologies evolve, I suspect we may see “fake” humans walking about.

I don’t think this will happen any time soon, but in some decades, I really do think we’ll get there. In the future, I’d love to give this topic some more thought and flesh out the ideas here. For now, Happy Labor Day!

Also published on Medium.

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