Attack of the Deepfakes

Surely they’ve invaded your screen by now: altered videos where words are put into a speaker’s mouth, replete with lip movements and voices that appear authentic. Leveraging AI technology, deepfakes have started a path to ubiquity along with their less elaborate relatives, videos altered or edited by more conventional means — videos slowed down or sped up just enough to make the speaker sound a bit tipsy or to make the actions depicted seem a bit more violent than what actually occurred in reality. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen Mark Zuckerberg, Nancy Pelosi and actor Kit Harington, who plays John Snow in Game of Thrones (I’ll let you search for this yourself due to offensive language) all victimized by this rapidly advancing technology.

While editing photos has literally become child’s play over the past years, deepfakes have recently made a big splash as the video equivalent. Although trained eyes may frequently question the authenticity of photos, videos have always elicited a higher degree of trust – until now. The age-old cliché of ‘seeing is believing’ has been fully upended.

Should you find yourself in the camp of thinking that deepfakes are still easy to spot, be assured that the technology is still in its infancy. It’s simply a matter of time before the altered videos will become virtually impossible to detect with the human eye.

So how do we combat deepfakes? Two new technologies are emerging to do so:

1) Detection Solutions

While conventional wisdom suggests deepfake detection is the appropriate solution, a recent article in The Verge raises serious questions about this approach. Drawing a very relevant analogy to computer viruses which are rapidly evolving to outwit virus scanners, deepfakes have hit a similar trajectory of outwitting detection software. This battle of one-upmanship promises to be constant, rendering any static deepfake detection technology virtually useless over time.

Universities and other organizations have recently announced new deepfake detection technologies with over 90% accuracy, like a recent breakthrough offering 92% accuracy. Forgetting for a moment that 92%+ accuracy is not an ideal number (would you be pleased if your automobile or mobile phone worked 92% of the time?), a more unnerving aspect is that even the creators of deepfake detection acknowledge the accuracy of their detection techniques is degrading rapidly as deepfake technology advances. So what can be done?

2) Traceability solutions

Emerging alternatives to detection are blockchain solutions that can register original and authentic video assets on a distributed ledger, either from the point when they are created or at least from a well-known, trusted point of origination. An example of the former might be an original video that is registered on the ledger at the point of creation. An example of the latter might be a video originating from a trusted newswire, whose reputation relies on the accuracy of their content.

Having the ability to trace the authenticity or origin of a video is valuable, and moreover, much faster and easier than a forensic analysis of all the bits of a video to detect tampering. Truth is, the time required for validation is essential. Consider a recent interview of Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri where he suggests that hours of displaying a deepfake video can result in millions of views and significant harm. Wouldn’t it be better to validate authenticity in seconds?

Who is responsible for detection and validation?

A more subtle question that arises when social platforms are thrust into the spotlight is whether it is truly the platforms’ responsibility to remove or censor deepfakes. Rather than open a potentially endless debate around the topic of deepfakes and free speech, wouldn’t it better if a typical consumer could discern a deepfake for themselves, via a universal solution? Surely, such a solution would largely avoid the ambitious and somewhat unrealistic suggestion to regulate every platform.

Consider a more compelling approach such as marrying traceability with self-authentication, where it becomes extremely straightforward for anyone to validate the video content in real-time. Unfortunately, some primitive approaches to self-authentication, such as watermarking, are not entirely secure and can obstruct video content. Instead, think how a web browser today can validate a secure website by checking its certificate in real-time, alerting you of any security issues, and you have the right idea. A simple, accessible, universal solution for important online video content represents a great starting point for addressing deepfakes.

While the debate and buzz around the best way to address deepfakes is bound to continue, what has become apparent is we are facing one of the biggest threats to video authenticity we could ever imagine. The threat calls for a thoughtful solution that can avoid unending technology escalations, free speech debates, and can rapidly re-establish order to a world that has become very dependent on video and media.

Why is Blockchain a Polarizing Technology?

Even though blockchain has continued to mature over the past years, the technology still elicits bifurcated views from purists, technologists, analysts and industry experts. Looking beyond the well-known cryptocurrency and payments use cases, opinion is particularly split on the usefulness of blockchain in the enterprise.

Case in point, a recent article in TechRepublic, titled “Your blockchain project is dumb, and likely to fail” highlights the overzealous use of blockchain, when applied to problems that can be solved by conventional technologies – think databases or trusted third parties. The article goes on to cite a Gartner report explaining that weak use cases are among the factors which prevent blockchain solutions from reaching production.

At the same time, a more recent article entitled “Blockchain Is Gaining Trust In The Enterprise” indicates that 83% of executives are seeing compelling use cases for blockchain technology. What’s more, the data indicates 40% of enterprises are willing to spend $5M or more on blockchain initiatives over the next 12 months. In case you are wondering if the subjects in this survey might be purists or outliers, consider this data comes from a sample of more than 1300 executives surveyed by Deloitte.

So what exactly gives?

Well, like any newer technology, blockchain tends to be overhyped at times. It’s not unusual for deployments to overreach into use cases where the benefits are somewhat questionable. But while some deployments of blockchain may seem needless, rest assured, others offer capabilities and value that could not be realized otherwise.

All of this begs the question: what are good reasons to use blockchain over conventional technologies? Here are three:

  1. Security: In many ways, blockchain is far more secure than conventional solutions. In spite of this, arguments tend to rage regarding the immutability of blockchain and related distributed ledger technologies. After all, it is possible to coerce a majority of nodes, miners, or stakeholders to collectively rewrite a ledger in spite of powerful consensus technology, with susceptibility increasing if the parties are trusted. However, when the consensus model is well-matched to the use case, the process of altering a distributed ledger is exponentially more difficult than conventional technologies, which often rely on privately secured databases managed by a single entity. Let’s not ignore that by decentralizing control from a single party, the risk of insider threats can be reduced.
  2. Cross-organizational validation of data or assets: Outside of siloed environments, data may be coming from numerous sources. Here, the issue of trust looms large and the need for validation becomes essential. A personal spreadsheet used by an individual is not a use case for blockchain. However, initiatives that involve aggregating data from outside agencies, providers or an ecosystem that may include consumers, make a strong case for validation of data via a shared distributed ledger – with far less need for trusted intermediaries.
  3. Efficiencies. Perhaps one of the overlooked benefits of distributed ledgers is that the infrastructure is shared by multiple internal or external groups and organizations. Beyond removing the need for duplicate infrastructure, public ledgers allow organizations to participate without having infrastructure of their own. This makes blockchain an enabler for organizations that lack the wherewithal to build their own infrastructure. Aside from infrastructure cost savings, let’s not forget that reduced reliance on intermediaries enables additional efficiencies.

In summary, and to answer the original question posed by this article, are some blockchain use cases questionable? Yes. Are there blockchain use cases that enable capabilities previously unavailable from conventional technologies? Yes. Will folks continue to be polarized regarding the usefulness of blockchain? You can bet on it.

The Intersection of Digital Transformation and Blockchain

While it’s natural to view Digital Transformation as a buzzword “du jour,” recent reports show the US is operating at less than 20% of its digital potential. If you find that number distressing, you may be even more surprised at some of the industry sectors that have been found to be lagging in their digital initiatives. Consider a recent March 2019 article that cites banks and insurers falling behind in their digital transformation initiatives according to a Capgemini study.

Citing a few specifics from the study, only 41% of executives and 33% of total respondents indicated confidence in support the digitization of their business. What may be even more telling is that the same survey in 2012 yielded a 51% and 41% confidence from executive and total respondents, respectively, demonstrating a concerning downward trend.

A second article reflecting on the same study data suggests the low confidence may be due to the lack of skills, leadership and vision to enact necessary change. Taking a closer look at results from the insurance industry, only 30% of insurance responders feel they have the right digital capabilities for improving customer experience. In line with that, only 35% of surveyed insurance organizations used mobile channels and apps to provide customer service at the time of the 2018 study.

Given the millennial generation has grown up using technology, it should be no surprise that the convenience of using a mobile phone for all types of transactions represents table stakes for consumer-facing businesses. Surely lack of confidence in digitizing a business is not a viable reason to ignore the transition that is happening.

While the declining data paints a relatively bleak picture, you might wonder if diminishing returns may have stagnated some digital transformation initiatives over the past few years. While many areas of the businesses surveyed may have remained in the so-called “dark ages,” could it have been a result of marginal returns with respect to the ambitious efforts required? If that is indeed the case, what can help rekindle progress toward digital modernization?

Well, it’s not unusual that every few years a game changing technology arrives that can drive modernization. Let’s consider blockchain, or more generally, distributed ledger technology. While blockchain may be best known as a technology for electronic funds transfer, such as Bitcoin, the underlying network offers an immutable ledger that can be shared within and across organizations. Perhaps what’s most intriguing is organizations can partake of the benefits, without having to own or run the technology.

While pundits may be quick to point out potential vulnerabilities of blockchain, such as the highly unlikely potential to sway the majority of miners/nodes to break the powerful consensus model, it may be worth transcending such discussions to consider the potential benefits the technology brings to the table. After all, like any new technology, risks and gaps are rapidly being addressed.

Consider instead that blockchain possesses a couple of key attributes to help enable and accelerate digital transformation:

  • In the case of public or even consortium-based blockchain, the skills and leadership to deploy digital innovation no longer have to reside within an organization. Instead blockchain democratizes a consistent ledger for sharing and communication, only requiring organizations to plug in rather than building and deploying the infrastructure themselves. This means organizations of any size can enjoy the benefits, a hallmark of a disruptor
  • The game changing functionality that blockchain delivers in the fintech or insurance sectors is of substantial magnitude. Whether we talk about efficiency of fund transfers and payments in the finance industry or validation and sharing of digital assets for the insurance industry, immediate benefits are available to any industry organization that participates. Interestingly, with these benefits come aspects of modernization that may have been abandoned in the past, such as fully digitized customer experience that can build upon the ledger

Ultimately, blockchain may create new urgency for organizations to digitize and modernize their infrastructure. A recent CB insights article articulates how blockchain can disrupt the insurance industry, with one of the strongest value propositions being eliminating or reducing the over $40B in annual insurance fraud. Organizations who ignore such benefits will ultimately be left behind, losing business to their competitors who have already adopted.

With blockchain, we find ourselves at a crossroads of a new technology that organizations are being forced to decide on. Perhaps some organizations have already figured out how it figures into accelerating digital transformation initiatives, while other have largely ignored it as noise. The implications of embracing this technology can impact numerous operational business aspects from internal systems to customer interactions, and ultimately may dictate who will be the industry leaders of the future.

Drawing a familiar parallel, back in 2008, I co-founded a cloud company where we urged customers to adopt or find themselves at a disadvantage to their competitors who do. It is rather evident to see the transformation that occurred 11 years later and who the winners are.

Once again, organizations face a similarly important adoption decision that could determine who will be the leaders and laggards in the years ahead. What will your decision be?