Imagine it is the spring of 2019. A bottom-feeding website, perhaps tied to Russia, “surfaces” video of a sex scene starring an 18-year-old Kirsten Gillibrand. It is soon debunked as a fake, the product of a user-friendly video application that employs generative adversarial network technology to convincingly swap out one face for another.
It is the summer of 2019, and the story, predictably, has stuck around — part talk-show joke, part right-wing talking point. “It’s news,” political journalists say in their own defense. “People are talking about it. How can we not?”
Then it is fall. The junior senator from New York State announces her campaign for the presidency. At a diner in New Hampshire, one “low information” voter asks another: “Kirsten What’s-her-name? She’s running for president? Didn’t she have something to do with pornography?”
Welcome to the shape of things to come. In 2016 Gareth Edwards, the director of the Star Wars film “Rogue One,” was able to create a scene featuring a young Princess Leia by manipulating images of Carrie Fisher as she looked in 1977. Mr. Edwards had the best hardware and software a $200 million Hollywood budget could buy. Less than two years later, images of similar quality can be created with software available for free download on Reddit. That was how a faked video supposedly of the actress Emma Watson in a shower with another woman ended up on the website Celeb Jihad.
Programs like these have many legitimate applications. They can help computer-security experts probe for weaknesses in their defenses and help self-driving cars learn how to navigate unusual weather conditions. But as the novelist William Gibson once said, “The street finds its own uses for things.” So do rogue political actors. The implications for democracy are eye-opening.