From AI To ChatGPT To Deepfakes: Are We Losing Our Grasp On Reality?

From the pope rocking a Balenciaga puffy coat to a Drake and Weeknd song that never happened, artificial intelligence is causing a stir and making it harder to separate real from fake.
Photo Illustration by Sheldon Cooper/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

In late March, a picture of Pope Francis draped in a Balenciaga bubble coat did the viral rounds. It seemed like something he might wear if he were delivering prayers in chilly environs. Because it’s Balenciaga, the photo made his excellency seem a bit more… excellent.

More sentences were written with the words “swag” and “drip” and “pope” than will probably ever be written again.

Turns out that the photo was a fugazi ― a piece of trickery generated by artificial intelligence (AI), courtesy of a dude high on mushrooms. Alarming is how effortlessly the photo was created: Using a program called Midjourney, Chicagoan Pablo Xavier simply typed three prompts: “Catholic Pope Francis,” “Balenciaga puffy coat” and “streets of Paris.”

Midjourney employs the use of “chatbots,” programs designed to simulate human conversation. Responses range from answering a simple question to writing a full-blown essay to answering math questions to creating a “Balenciaga pope.”

No complicated code. No nuanced editing. Just nine words in a search menu to fool the country for days. There are articles pointing out that giving the photo more than a mere cursory look reveals it’s a fake, but gone are the days when all you had to do was look for the telltale curves in an Adobe Photoshop job.

ChatGPT, created by OpenAI, quickly became the most popular chatbot since it dropped last November. Folks use the free program to build résumés, craft whole essays and solve math problems, causing some to suggest that the concept of homework as an effective learning tool is a relic of the past. It also provides credence to the suggestion that that technology is making us stupider.

The “Balenciaga pope” is relatively innocuous, but it’s part of a newer, and scarier, trend of AI-perpetuated disingenuousness. With so much news about the tech bleeding into headlines, one can’t help but wonder how long it’ll be before I’m standing in line at Starbucks talking to a holographic barista that I can wave my hand through.

Shiny new tech always activates my nerd nodules, but there are too many concerns with the progression of AI that make me think that we could lose grasp of this thing. Even the folks who should be championing AI, including Elon Musk, are calling for a pause on development of the technology for half a year. As of press time, more than 3,100 people have signed the letter, including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and onetime presidential candidate Andrew Yang.

(The irony is Musk founded Neuralink, a company designed to assist the disabled through implanted computer chips. Wouldn’t you know: The U.S. government doesn’t think we’re ready to, y’know, insert computer chips in human beings.)

Even in the eyes of laypeople, the risks of AI seem manifold: Of course, there’s that nagging concern of Skynet becoming active ― ”M3GAN” was a fun popcorn flick, but just how close to killer robots are we getting? There will likely always be a fundamental divide between man and machine that will prevent that from happening, but machines, by definition, are created to be controlled. If we lose that, how vulnerable will we be?

A more grounded concern: More AI-powered robots and software that can do things means fewer jobs for you and me. There are also those damn self-driving cars, an inchoate technology that reasonable folks should steer away from until the developers work out the kinks.

AI also invites a host of legal ramifications we’re only just beginning to understand. The concept of being able to “deepfake,” or reasonably mimic someone else’s voice, is concerning: This past weekend, Drake made headlines as the victim of two separate AI deepfakes: The first is his voice used to rap Ice Spice’s “Munch”; Champagne Papi responded “This is the final straw AI” to the “cover” on his Instagram Story.

The second is an “original song” featuring AI verses from known Toronto enemies Drake and The Weeknd about the latter’s ex, Selena Gomez. At press time, the song has had 6 million listens and, honestly, wouldn’t be the worst cut from either artist if it were real.

Young Guru, Jay-Z’s Grammy-winning producer, engineer and DJ, expressed concerns about two other viral videos from March ― one featuring a burly white dude sounding like Kendrick Lamar when rapping in a modulator, and one of a fake Jay-Z verse, ad-libs and all. He acknowledges that though the technology itself is cool, it’s the “evil that men do” about which everyone should remain concerned.

(Speaking of Kendrick, his 2022 video for “The Heart Part 5” included a bunch of deepfake transformations that freaked out a lot of people. I mean, Nipsey Hussle and Jussie Smollett?)

The continued pursuit of innovation is a cornerstone of modern society. But when it comes to creating technology that potentially takes human control out of the equation, we’re consistently examining the question, “Even if we can create it, should we?”

Who knows. We may have already crossed that line.