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Deepfakes Can Help You Dance

Startup Humen AI is betting its app is ethically equipped for the current skeptical moment.
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Source: YouTube

Bruno Mars begins dancing to his hit pop song halfway through the YouTube clip, titled Everybody Dance Now, but the video’s real star is Tinghui Zhou. A gangly coder in skinny jeans, Zhou appears on the right side of the frame and, at first, flails his arms without rhythm. A split second later he’s moving exactly like Mars. Zhou and his research colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley had used a form of artificial intelligence technology called generative adversarial networks (GANs) to copy the steps, with only the occasional glitch.

In the year since the clip went viral, Zhou has turned his team’s research into a startup called Humen AI, which aims to turn the video gimmick into an app and, eventually, a paid service for Hollywood studios, video game developers, and ad agencies. The 29-year-old has also run smack into a wave of public panic about “deepfakes,” synthetic media manipulations assisted by machines. Like the Bruno Mars mimicry, deepfakes don’t have to be perfect; this spring, a fake clip of Nancy Pelosi slurring her speech, edited with tech barely more advanced than Photoshop, ricocheted across the web. Congress has held hearings on the subject.