Recently images of the Pope in a puffer caused quite a stir globally, with millions convinced that Pope Francis had stepped out wearing a notably fashionable and unorthodox snow-white full-length Balenciaga puffer jacket. Understandably, the image went viral with many believing that the Pope would actually stray so far from the traditional religious clothing norms by sporting such a garment, however those who weren’t fooled by the image, were confused and started questioning how on earth such a realistic image came to be. According to the New York Post, “Godless technology has made a mockery of papal regalia – and gullible social media users.”

The image which now has over 20.3 million views on Reddit and Twitter, was later accompanied by others of the Pope wearing equally interesting and trendy fashion choices including sneakers and sunglasses. As it transpired of course, as convincing as the images were, they were in fact AI generated deep fakes. A deep fake is a type of artificial intelligence that is used to create content, namely images, videos and audio with the intention of deception and hoaxes that can lead to the promotion of misinformation. The danger in deepfake artificial intelligence, such as the recent images of the Pope, and the even more convincing videos and audio files of influential people that have become more frequent as of late, is both the level of virality that they ultimately have, but also in the message that they spread and the intention behind their creation in the first place. Such content has the ability to cause mass confusion and influence people to act on the misinformation.

The images of the Pope were generated using AI software Midjourney. While the images are far from perfect, with some distortion being spotted in the Pope’s eyelids and glasses frames, or the water bottle that he has in his hand, most people did not initially spot these and took them at face value. Midjourney is not the only software on the market that can be used to generate such imagery – DALL E2, Dream Studio and OpenAI also have software available for public use and do not require much training to start producing hyper-realistic imagery. The artist behind the Pope imagery is allegedly a 31-year old construction worker from Chicago who goes by the name of Pablo Xavier. According to the artist, he “didn’t want it to blow up like that” and found it “scary that people are running with it and thought it was real without questioning it.”

With the increased prevalence and accessibility of such software, the issue at hand will be how to determine the authenticity of the images, and how to ensure that they contain disclaimers or that viewers are aware of its origin and authenticity. Eric Horvitz, who is Microsoft’s chief scientific officer is one of the people trying to establish means of showcasing authenticity, however he believes that for now “most of what people will be seeing (in the next decade) will be synthetic. We won’t be able to tell the difference.” Now that is a very scary thought.