What if Apollo 11’s 1969 journey to the Moon had ended in disastrous failure? How would the world have been different had this meteoric achievement not been undertaken by humanity?
A 2020 short documentary film entitled In Event of Moon Disaster uses deepfake technology to make an alternate reality where one of humanity’s most monumental achievements ends in disaster, and warn viewers against the dangers of digitally manipulated online content at the same time.
Award-winning Egyptian journalist Pakinam Amer and a large group of colleagues have been nominated for an Emmy for their work on the documentary film.
“I was senior writer on the project," Amer says. "It was a big team so I am really just a cog in the wheel, but it’s been really exciting to work on it and to see our ideas conceptualised and brought to life."
A deepfake in deep space
The film was produced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Centre for Advanced Virtuality, at which Amer is currently a research fellow.
It went viral after its online release in 2020 and uses advanced visual manipulation technology to discuss rising concerns over the phenomenon of deepfakes, which Amer says are “here to stay”.
“The idea in the beginning was to address misinformation and disinformation," she says. "We wanted to create an alternate history to show the impact of creating a convincing version of reality, one that wasn’t necessarily true."
The film, which was directed by journalists Fran Panetta and Halsey Burgund, uses AI to explore an imagined reality where Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin die while on their mission to the Moon.
Using archival footage from Nasa, the seven-minute short takes viewers on a nerve-racking journey aboard Apollo 11.
The footage is edited in an anxiety-inducing way intended to make viewers think that the spacecraft malfunctioned and ultimately crashed.
Editing videos so that they are taken out of context is an example of something called shallow fakes, which do not require any high-tech AI to accomplish, just a good pair of eyes and an adequate video-editing programme.
But the film’s centrepiece is a real contingency speech written for former US president Richard Nixon and intended to be read by him in the event of the mission’s failure.
In the film, a digitally manipulated Nixon delivers it from the White House.
The fake Nixon is the spitting image of the real one, so much so that on realising one is watching a speech that was never delivered, one’s mind needs a second to adjust.
In contrast to less engaging forms of raising awareness around deepfakes and their potential to cause misinformation, Amer says the film was intended to be an “immersive storytelling experience" at the “intersection of nascent technologies and the issues they could plague societies with".
The team behind the film chose to rewrite the Moon landing because of its importance as a feat of progress that was watched all over the world.
“Everyone remembers the Moon landing," Amer says. "My parents remember it very well. There is this element of community to the event where we’re coming together to witness something bigger than ourselves.
“No matter if you were in China or the US or the Middle East, it was a monumental event for humankind. We wanted to use the popularity of the event as a segue into talking about deepfakes as a tech that might blur the line between reality and fiction.”
Confronting AI's double-edged sword
Although the film ends on a very serious note that confronts viewers with the dark side of AI, Amer does not think that it is necessarily a bad kind of technology, she just thinks that it has the potential to be easily used for nefarious purposes.
She says some positive uses of deepfake technology include art and satire, pointing to a recent documentary called Welcome to Chechnya where the tech was used to conceal the identities of marginalised groups whose lives might otherwise have been in danger.
"Regardless of the technology at the heart of the matter, the discourse itself was important and timeless," Amer says.
"Any new technology in its genesis is either scary or exciting, but that wears off. We wanted the conversations about ethics, about human rights, how we handle technology and how we consume news to be central."
When they first popped up on the scene about a decade ago, deepfakes were crudely done so it was very easy to spot that they were not real.
But AI has come a long way since then, says Amer, adding that today, they have become so accurate that there are companies contracted to spot deepfakes for businesses who want to avoid fraud.
The project was first launched as an art installation in Amsterdam in 2019 in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing.
It comprised a living room furnished in the style of late '60s America, with an old TV set that played the short film on repeat.
Littered around the room were newspapers full of headlines meant to corroborate the new reality being presented through the television.
Visitors of the installation could sit down in the living room, watch the video, read the newspapers and feel as though their histories had been rewritten.
The film has been an online sensation, reaching viral status with millions of views after being widely circulated on Reddit, Amer says.
This year, it was nominated for a News and Documentary Emmy in the Outstanding Interactive Media: Documentary category.
"It's quite intimidating to be nominated in the same category as Sir David Attenborough, but it's also kind of flattering," Amer says.
The 42nd News and Documentary Emmys are set to take place online on September 29.