COVID, Brexit, Trump … if you thought things couldn’t get worse, Nina Schick is about to disappoint you.

Martin Scorsese spent several years and millions of dollars de-aging his stars in The Irishman. If you’ve seen the 2019 film, you may think the results were pretty good. But a YouTuber armed with some free AI recently did an arguably better job.

“This is the only beginning of the synthetic media revolution,” according to Nina Schick, an author and broadcaster specialising in how technology and artificial intelligence are reshaping society. “This is increasingly going to become better and better and better,” she told October’s EffWorks virtual conference.

It marks the end of the ‘uncanny valley’ – that phenomenon where we as humans could tell something artificially generated wasn’t quite right. We’re now looking at a potentially dystopian future where high-fidelity content, both visual and audio, will contain fake humans generated by AI which are indistinguishable from the real deal.

This is going to “democratize visual content production by making it cheaper, faster, easier, and more high fidelity than anything we've ever seen before”, Schick said. “There are so many industries that are completely going to be overhauled by this revolution in content production.”

Supermodel Naomi Campbell once said she didn’t get out of bed for less than $10,000. Now she would just have to digitally license her image, turn over and go back to sleep.

“Corporate communications is another example,” said Schick. “If you are the CEO of a global corporation and you need to communicate to your consumers or your employees in different markets across the world in different languages, AI will be able to do that for you with a few clicks of a button.”

For advertising the future is already here in the shape of a State Farm ad that promoted The Last Dance, a Netflix documentary series about Michael Jordan.

“The people that created it used AI to take an existing old clip of an ESPN reporter and then manipulate what he was saying so that he actually predicted the documentary series and made a couple of other funny predictions for the future,” Schick explained. “So you can see how for content producers, synthetic media is going to change everything.”

That’s the upside – great for creatives – now for the downside: “It’s also the most sophisticated tool of misinformation and disinformation that has existed to date,” Schick stated.

And, inevitably, this is going to be initially evident in pornography, an industry that has always been one of the first to latch onto new developments in tech. “Even though malicious use case of deep fakes starts with porn, it’s now also starting to leach into politics where manipulated and synthetic media videos are being used to target politicians or people who are politically active and have voices that others want to suppress,” said Schick. “And it’s also now increasingly starting to be used as a weapon by criminals who wish to perpetrate fraud.”

Fake news? You ain’t seen nothing yet. “AI is going to make synthetic media ubiquitous,” Schick believes. So welcome to the age of disinformation, “where seeing is no longer believing … everything can be faked by a bad actor … [and] everything can also be denied. The entire concept of an objective reality is going to be undermined.” Suddenly, nothing is true and everything is possible: any political misstep, accidental or deliberate, can be denied. 

“There is a big space for thought leadership on how this technology can be deployed ethically,” says Schick. “It’s very important as we enter the age of synthetic media, that we have a clear taxonomy for the good and bad use cases. And the companies in the media space who are working with synthetic content [can] set the ethical boundaries for usage.”

Provenance of content is going to become even more important than now, since it’s not going to be easy to detect visually (or aurally) what is authentic and what isn’t; that might require a form of digital watermark, for example.

But technical solutions are only part of what Schick describes as the “huge societal paradigm shift in terms of perception” that is coming. Everyone involved in media and content, whether producers, platforms or policymakers, has an interest in creating an ecosystem that is safe for consumers.

“There is an deep moral and ethical imperative to get the framework for the use of synthetic media correct,” said Shick, “because if we don’t get this right, and five or six years down the line when synthetic media is ubiquitous and our politics have become even more partisan and polarised, it’s going to be too late.”

Nina Schick explores these ideas in depth in her new book, Deepfakes.