Artificial Intelligence and the ‘Gods Behind the Masks’

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In an excerpt from AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Future, Kai-Fu Lee and Chen Qiufan explore what happens when deepfakers attack the deepfakes.

In AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Future, AI expert Kai-Fu Lee and coauthor Chen Qiufan answer the question “How will artificial intelligence change the world over the next 20 years?” Lee’s technical explanations sit alongside Chen’s fictional short stories to produce an exploration of the perils and possibilities of AI. This story revolves around a Nigerian video producer who is recruited to make an undetectable deepfake. Touching on impending breakthroughs in computer vision, biometrics, and AI security, it imagines a future world marked by cat-and-mouse games between deepfakers and detectors, and between defenders and perpetrators.

As the light-rail train inched into Yaba station, Amaka pushed a button next to the door of his carriage. Even before the train came to a complete stop, the doors opened with a whoosh and Amaka hopped off. He couldn’t tolerate the slow trains—or their stale odor—for another second. Following closely behind an elderly man, Amaka nimbly slid through the turnstile at the station’s exit. Facial recognition cameras were meant to deduct the fare as each person passed by. Thanks to the mask that veiled Amaka’s face, however, he slipped out without charge.

Join Wired on Tuesday, September 14, from 5 to 6 pm PT (8-9 pm ET; September 15, 8-9 am Beijing) for a Twitter Spaces conversation between Kai-Fu Lee, coauthor and science fiction writer Chen Qiufan, and WIRED AI reporter Tom Simonite. Do you have questions about how the two coauthors collaborated on this project? Or about any aspect of the future of AI? Drop them in the comments below, or join us and ask them in real time on September 14.

Such masks had become commonplace among the young people of Lagos. For their parents’ generation, masks were ritual objects, but for the youth, whose numbers had swelled in recent decades, they had become fashion accessories—and surveillance avoidance devices. Lagos, the largest city in West Africa, was home to somewhere between 27 and 33 million people—the official number depended on what method the authorities used to measure it. Five years ago, the state imposed a strict limit on the number of migrants entering the city—even those, like Amaka, who were born in other parts of Nigeria. Since then, itinerant dreamers like Amaka had been forced to seek makeshift shelter in illegal apartments, hostels, markets, bus stations, or even under over-passes. He had met many homeless people, people who had been driven onto the streets for all kinds of reasons: people whose homes had been demolished to make way for new shopping centers, people newly arrived in Nigeria from worse-off nations, and those who were simply poor. Nigeria’s youthfulness—the nation’s median age was merely 21—was thanks to the nation’s high fertility rate. Still, the rapid development of the world’s third-most-populous nation had not benefited its citizens equally.

While other parts of Lagos strained under the pressure of its young population, the Yaba district was flourishing. Dubbed “the Silicon Valley of West Africa,” the neighborhood stood out for its orderliness, fresh air, and high-tech-infused daily life. Pedestrians could activate the cartoon animals on the billboards and interact with them via hand gestures. Cleaning robots roamed the streets, collecting and sorting trash, then sending it off to recycling centers where it was turned into renewable materials and biofuel. Sustainable bamboo fiber had recently made the leap from building material to fashion trend, at least for the denizens of Yaba.

Standing outside the station and holding his smartstream up to eye level, Amaka overlaid a live virtual route map onto the surrounding streetscape. Following the projected route, he began walking, eventually stopping before a gray building emblazoned with the number 237 and tucked away on a quiet backstreet. The company he was looking for, Ljele, was apparently based on the third floor. Two days ago, he had received a mysterious email from an anonymous Ljele account about a job that was “right up his alley.” The position was his under the condition of his showing up for an interview in person.

Artificial Intelligence and the ‘Gods Behind the Masks’

This short story is excerpted from AI 2041, by Kai-Fu Lee and Chen Qiufan.

Courtesy of Currency

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As Amaka entered a small reception area on the third floor, the receptionist smiled and pointed to Amaka’s mask, indicating he should remove it for an identity check. The young man hesitated, then took his mask off. Reflected in the camera lens was a young, smooth face. His 3D-printed mask couldn’t match the delicate quality of the pricey handmade versions sold at absurd prices to tourists in the Lekki Market, but the coarse reproduction, with its butterfly-like pattern, was enough to fool the facial recognition algorithm of most common surveillance cameras. In the eyes of AI, Amaka was a “faceless person.” The mask not only saved him money, but, more important, shielded him from the authorities. After all, Amaka had yet to obtain a migrant residence permit.

When the face scan was completed, the receptionist brought Amaka into a conference room and told him to wait. He sat stiffly as he pondered how he would answer questions regarding his previous work experience. I have to lie, he realized. I don’t have many other choices.

Ten minutes passed. The promised interviewer did not appear. Abruptly, the projection wall across from him lit up, and surveillance camera video footage began to play.

To Amaka, the video footage was as familiar as the back of his own hand. Midnight. Dim, yellow streetlamps. Several homeless people were scattered under an overpass, lying on makeshift mattresses. The silhouette of a boy emerged from the shadows. The boy walked over to a group of sleeping people and gazed down. The camera zoomed in. The boy was white, no more than 5 or 6 years old, dressed in striped pajamas, his face wan and expressionless. One of the people woke up with a start and met the boy’s eyes. The homeless man asked the boy what his name was and where he lived. The boy’s body trembled as he mumbled incoherently. Suddenly, his face twisted, the corners of his lips stretching open and revealing two rows of sharp teeth. He bit down hard on the homeless man’s neck. The man cried out in pain, waking up the others. The boy fled the scene, blood trickling down his lips and chin.

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