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MIT creates Apollo 11 'moon disaster' to explore danger of deepfakes

July 20, 2020

— It was 51 years ago today (July 20) that U.S. President Richard Nixon addressed the country after fate ordained that the first humans to attempt a landing on the moon would "stay on the moon to rest in peace."

The iconic broadcast, mourning the loss of Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, was delivered from the Oval Office at the White House just hours after the moon disaster.

Except it wasn't. As history records, the first lunar landing was a total success and the crew returned to Earth safely, despite a new recording showing Nixon reading the contingency words prepared for him by speechwriter William Safire on July 18, 1969. The video, released by MIT's Center for Advanced Virtuality on Monday — the 51st anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing — is "fake news," purposely.

"Media misinformation is a longstanding phenomenon, but, exacerbated by deepfake technologies and the ease of disseminating content online, it's become a crucial issue of our time," said D. Fox Harrell, professor of digital media and of artificial intelligence at MIT and director of the Center for Advanced Virtuality, part of MIT Open Learning, in a statement.

"This alternative history shows how new technologies can obfuscate the truth around us, encouraging our audience to think carefully about the media they encounter daily," added Francesca Panetta, the project's co-lead and XR Creative Director at MIT Virtuality.

In Event of Moon Disaster: A Deepfake. Click to enlarge. (MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality)

Although the text of the speech is real, the footage of Nixon reading from it is not. Originally presented in November 2019 as part of a touring physical installation that replicated a typical 1960's living room, the six-minute film has been released online for the first time on a new website that engages educators and media consumers to gain a better understanding of deepfakes: how they are made and how they work; their potential use and misuse; and what is being done to combat them.

Also included on the website is a Scientific American documentary centering on a behind-the-scenes making-of feature on the "In Event of Moon Disaster" deepfake.

To create the video, the team at the Center for Advanced Virtuality, supported by a grant from Mozilla's Creative Media Awards, recruited a voice actor to record the speech and then worked with the companies Respeecher and Canny AI to reproduce Nixon's voice and facial movements, using a combination of advanced deep learning and AI (artificial intelligence) technologies. The process, in part, required finding a suitable real Nixon speech to alter with new mouth motions.

"We scoured hours of Nixon's Vietnam speeches, looking for a two-minute clip in which his gestures and movements lined up perfectly with the contingency speech recording made by our actor," Panetta and co-director Halsey Burgund wrote in an essay for the film's website. "Page turns, head movements, hand motions needed to align believably with our new speech. We ended with Nixon's resignation broadcast. It has the framing of the flags, a great zoom-in and Nixon was visually showing emotion."

It took a week for actor Lewis Wheeler to record the speech, repeating phrase after phrase to get the rhythm and cadence right. He did not impersonate Nixon, though; the late president's voice was synthesized using AI software.

The end result, presented within the frame of a 1960's television broadcast, is surprisingly realistic. Recognizing how even this well-labeled deepfake could be used to deceive, the MIT website includes a section debunking the most popular conspiracy theories surrounding the moon landing.

"Lots of people have asked us, as the directors, why our project — a video that purports to show an alternate reality in which the 1969 lunar landing failed, and President Richard Nixon mourned the loss of two iconic astronauts — isn't misinformation itself. Aren't we just adding to the many conspiracy theories about the moon landing?" wrote Panetta and Burgund. "Our answer to this is an emphatic no."

"We believe that information presented as not true in an artistic and educational context is not misinformation. In fact, it can be empowering," the directors wrote. "By using the most advanced techniques available and by insisting on creating a video using both synthetic visuals and synthetic audio (a 'complete deepfake'), we aim to show where this technology is heading— and what some of the key consequences might be."

For more details or to screen the film, see the In Event of Moon Disaster website from MIT's Center for Advanced Virtuality.


President Richard Nixon delivers the speech prepared for a failed Apollo 11 moon landing in "In Event Of Moon Disaster," a new deepfake film from MIT's Center for Advanced Virtuality. (MIT)

President Richard Nixon's draft speech prepared by William Safire in the event of a "moon disaster" during the Apollo 11 mission as exhibited by the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California in 2019. (collectSPACE)

Actor Lewis Wheeler spent a week repeating phrase after phrase of the "In Event of Moon Disaster" speech to get the rhythm and cadence right so his mouth motions could be mapped to Richard Nixon's resignation address. (MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality)

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