Lesson of the Day: ‘Designed to Deceive: Do These People Look Real to You?’

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Lesson of the Day: ‘Designed to Deceive: Do These People Look Real to You?’

Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

Featured Article: “Designed to Deceive: Do These People Look Real to You?” by Kashmir Hill and Jeremy White

Did you know that advances in artificial intelligence over the last few years have made it possible to feed a computer program photos of real people, which it then studies and uses to generate its own photos of people who look real but are actually simulated?

In this lesson you experiment with a Times-created A.I. system that will show you how easy it is to do this, and how — at least until the technology improves — an observant human might spot these fakes. Finally, you will consider the many implications, positive and negative, this technology might have for our society.

Do the faces in the picture above look real to you? Do they look like people you actually know? Like people you have seen on social media?

Spoiler: They’re fake.

Here is how the article you are about to read begins:

There are now businesses that sell fake people. On the website Generated.Photos, you can buy a “unique, worry-free” fake person for $2.99, or 1,000 people for $1,000. If you just need a couple of fake people — for characters in a video game, or to make your company website appear more diverse — you can get their photos for free on ThisPersonDoesNotExist.com. Adjust their likeness as needed; make them old or young or the ethnicity of your choosing. If you want your fake person animated, a company called Rosebud.AI can do that and can even make them talk.

Did you already know or suspect this? Have you ever seen a picture of a person on the internet that you thought might be simulated instead of real? What raised your suspicions?

Finally, a deeper question: What problems might the fact that “there are now businesses that sell fake people” raise for our society? Why?

Read the article, then answer the following questions:

1. How are these simulated people starting to show up around the internet?

2. The Times has created its own A.I. system, which is embedded in the article. Play with it a bit. What do you notice? What do you wonder?

3. What is a generative adversarial network, how does it work, and where might it go in the future?

4. What are the problems with facial-recognition algorithms? What examples does the article give to show that A.I. is ultimately “as flawed as we are”?

5. What are some of the mistakes and patterns The Times’s A.I. system repeated?

6. With what warnings does this article end? Do you agree? Have you ever had an experience in which you trusted a machine more than yourself?

Option 1: Consider the implications.

As this article indicated, every time you refresh thispersondoesnotexist.com you will see a new face created by A.I. Play with the site for a few minutes as inspiration to make two lists. In one column, put all the positive uses this technology could have for our society. In another column, put all the negative uses you can think of. To help you brainstorm, you might start small by considering how you personally could use such technology, then scale up gradually, considering how, say, your school or local neighborhood could use it, then how corporations, governments and other large entities might use it.

On balance, do you think this technology is more helpful or dangerous? Why?

Option 2: Learn more about A.I. with The Times.

If this article caught your imagination, there are many pieces about artificial intelligence you can read and think about next. They might also help you add to your lists if you are doing Option 1, above, since they explore a real variety of uses for the technology.

Just for starters …

If you are doing this lesson in a classroom context, you might jigsaw so that small groups read different pieces and share the information they find.

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