Emeriting Editing Technologies Blurs the Lines Between Real and Fake

The image is modest, belying the historic import of the moment. A woman on a white sand beach gazes at a distant island as waves lap at her feet — the scene is titled simply “Jennifer in Paradise.”

This picture snapped by an Industrial Light and Magic employee named John Knoll while on vacation in 1987, would become the first image to be scanned and digitally altered. When Photoshop was introduced by Adobe Systems three years later, the visual world would never be the same. Today, prepackaged tools allow nearly anyone to make a sunset pop, trim five pounds or just put celebrity faces on animals.

Though audiences have become more attuned to the little things that give away a digitally manipulated image — suspiciously curved lines, missing shadows and odd halos — we’re approaching a day when editing technology may become too sophisticated for human eyes to detect. What’s more, it’s not just images either — audio and video editing software, some backed by artificial intelligence, are getting good enough to surreptitiously rewrite the mediums we rely on for accurate information.

The most crucial aspect of all of this is that it’s getting easier. Sure, Photoshop pros have been able to create convincing fakes for years, and special effects studios can bring lightsabers and transformers to life, but computer algorithms are beginning to shoulder more and more of the load, drastically reducing the skills necessary to pull such deceptions off.

In a world where smartphone videos act as a bulwark against police violence and relay stark footage of chemical weapons strikes, the implications of simple, believable image and video manipulation technologies have become more serious. It's not just pictured anymore — technology is beginning to allow us to edit the world.

It Begins With Pictures

A slew of projects, many in partnership with Adobe, are bringing intricate still image editing into the hands of amateurs. It’s easy to learn how to cut and paste in Photoshop or add simple elements, but these programs take it a step further.

One project from Brown University lets users change the weather in their photos, adding in rain, sunshine or changing seasons, with a machine learning algorithm. Trained on thousands of data points, the program breaks images into minute parts and edits each accordingly to make adjustments in lighting and texture that correspond to changing conditions.

Another project, this time from University of California, Berkeley, allows users to manipulate images wholesale, either with a set of simple tools and sliders or simply by drawing basic figures and letting the algorithm fill in the rest. The demo video shows one type of shoe morphing into another and mountains appearing from a simple line drawing. The program requires little more than basic computer skills.

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