As a star prosecutor in South Korea, Yoon Suk-yeol, the leading conservative candidate in the country’s presidential election, helped imprison two former presidents as well as the head of Samsung and a former chief justice of South Korea’s Supreme Court on charges of corruption. Today, as citizens cast their votes, Yoon hopes to become president himself by appealing to South Koreans who are deeply dissatisfied with the outgoing president, Moon Jae-in.
And Yoon has called on a secret weapon to boost his popularity among younger audiences—artificial intelligence, more precisely, deepfakes. The so-called ‘AI Yoon’ stood in as a replacement for the ‘real deal’ in short video clips. Why? Because AI Yoon looks and gestures much like the real-life politician it is based on—only its answers are wittier and more likeable.
“A sharp-tongued former prosecutor, the 61-year-old Mr. Yoon is new to politics and wanted an efficient way to reach out to the electorate. He needed to pursue young voters and sought a softer public image, and had just roughly three weeks to officially campaign by law,” explained the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on the logic behind AI Yoon.
“We want voters to see the human side of Yoon—not the stern image he projects on television,” Baik Kyeong-hoon, head of the campaign’s AI Yoon team, further told the publication. Over 80 clips of Yoon’s deepfake have been shared on social media platforms, attracting more than 70,000 comments since making its debut in January 2022. The videos are typically 30 seconds or less, posted on a daily basis and often show AI Yoon answering voters’ questions picked beforehand by the candidate’s campaign staffers. Once a question is selected for the day, its answer is redacted and delivered by the digital avatar.
AI Yoon addresses a myriad of topics including North Korean missile launches and fake news, the K-pop girl band Blackpink—according to the WSJ, one of their songs is AI Yoon’s “karaoke go-to”—and his grocery shopping list that day (eggs, green onions, anchovies and beans).
In turn, “Yoon is learning from his AI Yoon messages,” said Lee Jun-seok, head of the candidate’s People Power Party, who came up with the idea of the deepfake version. Following the success of his digital self, Yoon has adapted what he brings up on the campaign trail and how he says it. Considering the fact that AI-generated fake faces have been proven to be more trustworthy than real ones, it comes as no surprise that AI Yoon has played a crucial role in the candidate’s presidential campaign.
In an attempt to slow down the deepfake’s rise in popularity, Democratic Party officials initially blasted AI Yoon, calling the technology fraudulent and a threat to democracy. Yet soon after, an AI version of Lee Jae-myung, Yoon’s progressive rival, emerged too. His party justified the move by saying that it was different because Lee’s avatar was made from real footage of his actual comments, such as reciting his election pledges and slogans. In contrast, Yoon’s computer-generated remarks “purposefully hid Mr. Yoon’s flaws,” a Democratic Party official said.
Currently, South Korea’s presidential race is a tight showdown between Lee and Yoon. People in their 20s and 30s have now become swing voters, expressing dissatisfaction with the state of the economy and soaring real-estate prices. Outgoing president Moon and his Democratic Party have also been rocked by a series of scandals that exposed ethical lapses and policy failures. As a result, more than half of the electorate wants a change from the current Moon administration, according to a Gallup Korea polling.
That has given Yoon—who has especially targeted young men and taken a stab at feminism—a shot with a younger demographic that has historically avoided conservatives. Lee Seong-yoon, a 23-year-old college student, first thought AI Yoon was real after viewing a video online. Watching Yoon talk at debates or on the campaign trail can be dull, he explained to the WSJ. But he now watches AI Yoon videos in his spare time, finding the digital version of the candidate more relatable, in part because “he speaks like someone his own age.” He said he is voting for the candidate.
“I’m not so worried about deepfake technology because any technology can be used for good or bad,” he further told the publication. The technology behind AI Yoon is provided by the Seoul-based DeepBrain AI, which synthesises voice and video to produce a human-looking avatar that can hold down real-time conversation. “It’s a bit creepy, but the best way to explain it is we clone the person,” said John Son, who heads Asia-Pacific business development at DeepBrain AI, to the WSJ.
But what’s really to be acclaimed here is the work Yoon’s campaign team did. When the digital version of the candidate first launched, it completely tanked. The deepfake was too serious and unapproachable as it answered policy questions—much like its real-life counterpart. Then, the staffers thought of changing the type of questions AI Yoon would be answering, which is when questions from voters started appearing along with some humorous answers from the deepfake.
“What’s your MBTI?” one voter asked, the acronym for the workplace personality test. “My personality type is ENFJ, the same as Barack Obama,” AI Yoon responded, referring to a personality type common among outgoing and warm leaders. “Have an energetic day, Barack Obama!” he added.
No matter the question, script writers try to make each response funny and understandable even to a middle schooler, Baik, head of the AI Yoon team, told the WSJ. If Yoon wins today’s election, the career of AI Yoon could be extended too, said Lee Jun-seok, leader of the People Power Party. He envisions one of DeepBrain AI’s kiosks greeting visitors at the presidential Blue House.
We’ve previously witnessed the appearance of AI-generated deepnudes, which, by the way, were later on revealed as being made using real images of sexual abuse—how awful. Around the same time, Kanye West thought it would be a great idea to buy his then-wife Kim Kardashian a talking hologram of her late father, Robert Kardashian. No need to ponder why they’re currently getting divorced. Even deepfake memes became popular!
All in all, it’s safe to say that deepfakes have comfortably infiltrated our lives, just like the rest of the, somewhat surprisingly, recent technologies that we take for granted in our daily life. Just because one trend is never enough for gen Zers—I should know, I am one myself—deepfakes now play a part in yet another trend of the moment: nostalgia.
From Y2k fashion to the viral retro music genre vaporwave, it’s obvious that we have a thing for reminiscence and sentimentality, even for eras we weren’t born in time for. This explains why we’re now all going berserk for MyHeritage’s new free feature called ‘deep nostalgia’, which allows users to upload pictures of their late relatives (or anyone else too, someone uploaded a photograph of the legendary Rosalind Franklin, ‘just because’) and have them come to life, eyes swivelling, faces tilting, and all that jazz.
The Black Mirror-esque technology has already taken TikTok by storm, with users sharing videos of them showing their parents AI-generated animations of their great great grandfather, grandmother, and other relatives, inevitably leading to emotional reactions and sometimes tears.
The creepy yet fascinating tool comes from MyHeritage, the Israeli online genealogy platform mostly known for its DNA test kits which provide customers with DNA matching and ethnicity estimates. But MyHeritage’s AI-powered viral deepfakery isn’t as complicated as it seems: the company is simply going straight for tugging on your heartstrings to grab data that can then be used to drive sign-ups for its other (paid) services. In other words, selling DNA tests is its main business, not ‘making it’ on TikTok, although that’s always a plus for any company.
As TechCrunch explains, last year for example, “the Norwegian Consumer Council reported MyHeritage to the national consumer protection and data authorities after a legal assessment of the T&Cs found the contract it asks customers to sign to be ‘incomprehensible’.”
Back in 2018, MyHeritage also suffered a major data breach. The data from that breach was later found for sale on the dark web, among a wider cache of hacked account info pertaining to several other services.
That being said, if you’re able to set aside the ethics of encouraging people to drag their long-lost relatives into the dark hole that is MyHeritage’s cross-sell DNA testing, then yes, the deepfake tool is pretty impressive.
But MyHeritage is not the only company to be praised (or condemned) for the deep nostalgia trend. Another Israeli company, D-ID, helped power it. As a TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield alumni, D-ID started out building tech to digitally de-identify faces with an eye on protecting images and video from being identifiable by facial recognition algorithms. Oh, the irony!
The company released a demo video of the newer, photo-animating technology last year. The tech uses a driver video to animate the photo, mapping facial features from the photo onto that base driver to create a “live portrait.”
“The Live Portrait solution brings still photos to life. The photo is mapped and then animated by a driver video, causing the subject to move its head and facial features, mimicking the motions of the driver video,” D-ID said in a press release. “This technology can be implemented by historical organizations, museums, and educational programs to animate well-known figures.” So, not really your great great uncle.
Like all good things in life, MyHeritage’s deep nostalgia feature is not completely free—after the first few free nostalgia hits, users are asked to pay a monthly fee. I would be lying if I said I’m not going to be one of the many to have a fiddle with the tool, however, knowing that a paywall is bound to cut me short in my nostalgia mania is a welcomed thought.