First it was a picture of the Pope.
The head of the Catholic Church striding through Vatican City in a $5,000 Balenciaga puffer jacket.
Shortly thereafter follows a photo of former US President Donald Trump physically resisting arrest by half a dozen police officers.
Two examples of images of events that never happened that went around the world.
Sanjana Hattotuwa is one of New Zealand’s leading experts on online disinformation and is part of the research group of the Disinformation Project.
He and his colleagues are increasingly concerned about the lack of control surrounding this ever-evolving technology, which gives millions of people around the world free and open access to tools to create hyper-realistic images from just a few lines of text.
“This family of artificial intelligence is evolving at a pace truly unrecorded in computing.”
“Why are these products and platforms and tools being developed at the pace they are without some sort of ethical guard rail within the companies that are developing them?
“Some of the leading companies — including Microsoft — are divesting the teams within (their own) companies that are addressing the ethical implications of the tools they’re building at Tempo.”
He said the public was at risk as a result.
“We’re becoming guinea pigs, lab rats so to speak, globally and nationally, for a range of tools within the family of GAI that have potential for harm that really boggles the mind.”
It’s like giving a medical student a scalpel on day one, he said, and taking him to open-heart surgery to learn his craft.
“There is no explanation as to why these tools are released when the creators and makers and the CEOs themselves say they don’t quite get the abuse under control [of their tools] and even how their own tools work internally.”
Back to Donald Trump.
While the photos themselves could be quickly debunked, it will inevitably have been too late for some people to “unsee” them.
With the former president facing criminal charges, these images filled a void in what people might have been expecting, leading some people to believe the photo’s motive was true.
And here the power of disinformation combined with these latest advances in the GAI is a potent mix.
“Anyone today can create a video, cartoon, meme, manipulate a photo, create synthetic media, clone a person’s face, or clone their voice to create content believable enough to motivate people to do something believing to do something, subscribing to something, and then acting on those beliefs. It’s a huge force,” Hattotuwa said.
But the purpose of disinformation is not necessarily to present false information as true, it is important to cast doubt on what is.
“When nothing is quite certain or true, everything can be projected as authentic and true. And that’s a net benefit for disinformation. Because it creates volatility, what we call truth decay or information disruption, which is essentially conspiracy theories, misinformation and so forth, particularly helping disinformation to target democracy at scale.”
He said the real risks associated with this technology, which is advancing unchecked and unregulated, are manifold and very worrying.
Man-made images and videos can undermine our justice and even raise national security concerns.
“It’s a hydra-headed beast. It’s not just the judiciary that would be affected; it’s also the policing, it’s the chain of custody, it’s the admissibility of evidence in court, it’s what we hold and believe to be true.
“It can have stock market implications, supermarket runs, it can make you think a politician said something they didn’t say.
“These are real-world implications that we have already seen the embryonic constructions of in disinformation narratives; they will affect everyone whether you use them or not.”
The UK is currently an outlier on the international stage as it has published artificial intelligence guidelines.
In it, it champions the tremendous potential of technology in a variety of sectors while recognizing risks to physical and mental health, data breaches and potential human rights abuses.
Hattotuwa is among those urging New Zealand politicians to act early and quickly to put regulatory checks and balances in place before technology takes another step forward.
“(Disinformation Project) has authored a ten-point analysis of what GAI could mean for this country,” Hattotuwa said, “which also includes national security threats and risks. This is serious going away and we need to start talking about it.”