The challenge of knowing whether what you read online is true has gotten national attention. It is proving harder and harder to separate factually based writing from intentional misinformation or click-bait. This problem is about to get exponentially worse.
We should all be concerned about living in what Peter Horan, a long-time veteran of the Internet industry, describes as a “post-truth society” — a society where “whether or not it has a foundation in fact, anything that is repeated often enough is believed to be true.”
The Internet has driven down the cost of producing content and distributing it broadly to effectively zero. It has also made the cost of reviewing written information for probity and integrity higher in comparison. Sadly, insuring that something is true requires more time and expense than making something up.
Until recently, the cost advantage that drives the ubiquity of false written information did not prevail for video images. A recent study by the Belfer Center at Harvard highlighted that since the invention of the photographic camera, “the technology for capturing highly reliable evidence has been significantly cheaper and more available than the technology for producing convincing forgeries.” This allowed people seeing images of a politician taking a bribe, a celebrity staring in a sex tape, or other sensational images, to be relatively comfortable that the depicted event actually occurred.
Last week, a number of technology blogs alerted us to the proliferation of inexpensive video editing software that creates realistic pornographic videos of celebrities. As inexpensive video editing technology is combined with artificial intelligence, creating fake videos have become indistinguishable from reality.
This development will challenge our society. But, it should also create an economic opportunity for our region.
Our largest regional industry, national security, sees the degradation of the fidelity of information as an existential security challenge. Chuck Howell, chief scientist for dependable artificial intelligence at the research contractor MITRE, points to an “arms race over various kinds of deception” attracting the attention of our national security establishment.
Many of our largest private businesses – media, consulting, advertising and other highly skilled knowledge worker businesses – depend upon the reliability of information and a consequent shared reality. More than many others, our region’s economy depends on informational expertise and having insights that are expensive to generate and correspondingly scarce. A world that does not share facts and informational integrity has no way to value informational experts. In that world, many of our businesses will suffer.
Therefore, our region has a very stark choice to make. It can either accept that the erosion of the quality of information is an irreversible technological trend, as many national observers have suggested. Or it can meet the challenge and fight for information quality and objectively demonstrable facts.
When I asked Kurt Roberts, chief innovation officer at RP3 Agency, about the threat posed by technology cheapening information, he told me we should “flip the notion on its head” and focus on using technology to help people know whether something is true or fake. This point was echoed by Adam Zuckerman, founder of the Fosterly community that promotes regional entrepreneurship. For him, technology is neither good nor bad. It just is a tool, and how we use it is an opportunity.
Any entrepreneur will tell you that the biggest businesses are often built by solving society’s biggest problems. We have the technologists and entrepreneurs to come up with new technology applications and the means to ensure that our society is based upon a shared reality and facts. We also have large customers that need that those solutions now more than ever.
Informational integrity may be a political issue for all, but for our region it is also a large business opportunity.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of TandemNSI, an organization that connects innovators to government agencies. He is host of “What’s Working in Washington” on the radio station WFED, a program that highlights business and innovation, and he lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.