Column: Hacking your voice

| Wiendelt Steenbergen

A lot of technical-scientific research is focused on combating the negative effects of previous research, such as obesity and the plastic soup. That is particularly true for the field of cybercrime and the growing demand for cyber security.

As with ‘regular’ crime, a lot of cybercrime can be prevented with common sense, attentiveness and regular maintenance of your digital security measures. Science also contributes to this form of security. No one with a shred of integrity can oppose this development, because crime is evil.

It is much harder to morally evaluate artificial intelligence (the theme of the previous edition of Science Magazine; I am a slow thinker). Artificial intelligence creates new opportunities that may not be illegal, but still have the potential to be socially disruptive.

'This is huge'

The Canadian organisation Lyrebird, for example, is developing technology to have the voices of famous people say random lines. In a demonstration on SoundCloud, ‘Trump.’ ‘Obama’ and ‘Hillary Clinton’ appear to discuss this technology. The timing is still a bit off and there is some rattling and static, but the voices sound lifelike and their intonation is fairly realistic. ‘Trump’ sighs: ‘This is huge, they can make us say anything now, really anything.’ That is a clever observation. Ever hopeful, ‘Obama’ says: ‘The good news is they will offer the technology to anyone.’

Lines will become even blurrier

A sympathetic move, it would seem – but is it really? The current fake news is still relatively easy to unmask, but what if you can make any public figure say whatever you want in a way that is indistinguishable from ‘the real thing?’ It seems only a matter of time before this becomes a reality. When your voice has been hacked, you lose all control over what you say. While some politicians currently dig their own political graves with what they say, soon they will also have to worry about what others are making them say. For the public, the line between truth and lie will become even blurrier.

Why would you make this technology publicly available? In a statement on its ethics page, Lyrebird claims that it wants to warn of the dangers this technology poses. That does not sound entirely genuine, however. After all, one does not go around selling beer to warn of the dangers of alcohol abuse. In any case, this technology is on the rise and will pose another new challenge to our cyber security.