MIT Creates Richard Nixon Deepfake for Space Emergency Speech

Had the moon landing gone terribly wrong, this was the speech he would have delivered

Nixon deepfake
Technology has created an uncannily realistic video of Richard Nixon delivering a speech he never had to give.
Halsey Burgund/YouTube
By Tobias Carroll / November 24, 2019 12:24 pm

What if the Apollo 11 moon landing had gone very differently, ending in tragedy rather than triumph? Richard Nixon had a speech prepared for such an event — a somber recounting to commemorate the loss of the astronauts involved and pay tribute to them before a mourning nation. 

But barring a window into a parallel universe where Apollo 11 did go awry, we have no way of knowing what such a speech would have actually sounded like — at least, not until now. At MIT, the Center for Advanced Virtuality used deepfake technology to create an unnervingly realistic video of the former president delivering this speech. 

At WBUR, Bob Shaffer has the details of how this uncannily realistic clip was created. It began with the film’s co-directors, Francesca Panetta and Halsey Burgund, working with actor Lewis D. Wheeler to record 3 hours of Nixon’s speeches. 

Once that was done, they sent it to a company called Respeecher. According to Shaffer, “Respeecher then used clips of those recordings to create a synthetic version of Nixon’s voice.” After that, a video company called Canny AI was used to blend archival footage with Wheeler reciting the unread speech.

From Panetta’s perspective, this choice of event was no accident. “[I]f we are trying to make a piece that is about interrogating whether deepfakes have the potential to rewrite history, then the moon landing seemed like a really good one to pick,” she told Shaffer.

For now, the clip serves as both a glimpse into an alternate corner of history and a warning of what technology is now capable of accomplishing. 

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