Austria     Belgium     Brazil     Canada     Denmark     Finland     France     Germany     Hungary     Iceland     Ireland     Italy     Luxembourg     The Netherlands     Norway     Poland     Spain     Sweden     Switzerland     UK     USA     

AI Threatens the Past, Too

Technological advancements have brought us to the brink of being unable to distinguish between real and artificially generated content, the phenomenon of deepfakes presents a significant challenge to the integrity of historical records and current events. Deepfakes, sophisticated digital forgeries that convincingly imitate the voices and images of public figures, are not a futuristic fear but a present reality. These manipulations have the potential to fabricate scandals and sway public opinion, including influencing election outcomes. However, amidst these concerns, there are also strong reasons for optimism regarding our capacity to discern and counteract fake media.

The advent of generative AI has ushered in an age where not only can contemporary events be falsified, but historical records can be altered or completely fabricated. This poses a unique threat to the authenticity of our understanding of history. For example, unaltered documents and media that lack digital watermarks—a method of embedding traceable information into files—become vulnerable to disputes regarding their authenticity. As society progresses towards a norm where only watermarked content is trusted, the credibility of historical content, produced before the widespread adoption of such security measures, could be undermined.

The manipulation of history is not a novel concept. Instances of historical revisionism for political or ideological purposes are well-documented. From Stalin’s removal of political adversaries from photographic records to the erasure of thousands from Slovenia’s resident registry post-independence, the power to alter the past has been exploited. The infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Zinoviev Letter, and Operation Infektion are examples of how forged documents have been used to influence public opinion and policy. These precedents highlight the ease with which history can be rewritten or falsified, a task made alarmingly simple and convincing with modern AI technologies.

Despite these challenges, there is a path forward, illuminated by the very entities that have contributed to the rise of deepfakes. AI companies, by indexing vast amounts of digital media to train their models, possess the capabilities to create databases of watermarked historical documents. This initiative could ensure that any subsequent alterations or fabrications are easily identifiable. However, this ambitious endeavor faces obstacles, notably intellectual property concerns, as seen in Google’s digital library project. Despite these hurdles, the motivation for both government and industry to preserve the authenticity of historical records is strong, driven by the public good and the necessity to maintain accurate data for training AI models.

The concept of “digital vellum” has been proposed as a solution to preserve not only historical documents but also the data and tools used to analyze and understand them. This initiative is crucial not just for maintaining the integrity of the historical record but also for ensuring that AI models are trained on accurate, unmanipulated data. As AI technologies continue to evolve, safeguarding the authenticity of our collective history is paramount to preventing the distortion of current and future narratives.

In conclusion, while the potential for generative AI to distort both current events and historical records is significant, the concerted efforts of technology companies, governments, and international bodies to watermark and verify digital content offer a beacon of hope. As we navigate this new landscape, the challenge will be to balance the innovation that AI brings with the imperative to preserve the truthfulness of our shared history and reality.