True lies

This company will let you sell your own deepfake, or buy a Trump and Joe Exotic one sells videos of AI-generated fictional characters and can create virtual versions of real people.

A new digital marketplace for "tokenized," AI-generated, photorealistic talking heads called Alethea (a female name that derives from the Greek for "truth") is offering anyone willing to pay the ability to put words in a synthetic human’s mouth. Prices for videos start at $49 and go up to $100 depending on which character you choose. For that price, you get to submit a 200-word script.

Scripts are vetted by the creators of the various characters, presumably to ensure people steer clear of objectionable material. But there’s no information on Alethea’s website concerning what sort of content is likely to be rejected, or what the guidelines are for deciding what's acceptable and what isn't.

In addition to AI-generated individuals, Alethea can be used to create digital amalgams of people. In one example, the tool created a mashup of U.S. President Donald Trump and the star of Netflix’s Tiger King, Joe Exotic, to disturbing effect.

A tiger and electorate's worst nightmare in one.Alethea

The Don Exotic / Joe Trump hybrid’s accompanying blurb reads:

If you will book me, it will be the best of deals in the history of deals. I guarantee it. That is because I have the best tigers, the most beautiful and best tigers in the world, maybe even the universe – people tell me that they have not seen any better tigers than mine. They’re amazing, just amazing. If you will book me, you will be amazing and I will deliver the most amazing video that you have ever seen. I promise you.

Which does sound a lot like something President Exotic would say. Sadly, there’s no accompanying audio, so we can’t assess how convincing the audio would be, or whether the hybrid would sound more like Donald or Joseph. One of the creators listed on Alethea is called “Vocalize,” and the blurb about them says they’re “intrigued by the possibility of cloning voices and sounds,” so perhaps that’s where the soundtracks come from.

There's no sound in the samples — While it’s hard to assess the characters properly without hearing them, visually some of them are fairly convincing. The short videos that accompany each see them variously peering around, blinking, and wrinkling their foreheads, as though they’re at least as surprised that they exist on the internet as we are.

Choose your fighter.Alethea

The company is also open to creating a custom artificial character based on a real person if you’re so inclined. One of its sample characters is modeled on an Alethea creator, Alex Masmej, for instance. Masmej’s AI character is described as a "permissioned character," meaning its “human counterpart owns the right to decide which request I fulfill, and which ones I do not.” That bodes well for consent when it comes to other digital likenesses of real people, assuming, of course, Alethea has some sort of identity verification in place to ensure people aren't using it to create deepfakes of others without there permission.

"Tokenized" characters — The Alethea website mentions that the characters are "tokenized," and a Twitter post (below) talks about the Ethereum blockchain. We're not clear what the link between the fictional characters and the blockchain is, but we've reached out to Masmej for more detail. We'll update this post accordingly when we get feedback.

Alethea's not the only game in town — Alethea’s by no means the first company to dabble in artificial human-like digital creations, of course. Samsung’s full-length, life-sized Neon artificial humans were debuted at CES this year, and last month we reported on a hobbyist who created video deepfakes to insert into Zoom calls. Then there’s virtual influencer Lil Miquela, whose creators earlier this month signed a deal with a legitimate talent agency for real money.

Too shy to complain to the manager? Let fictional Karen do it for you.Alethea

Combine tech like Alethea’s with the likes of Epic Games’ Unreal Engine or rival game engine Unity, and its clear deepfakes aren’t just near, they’re here. The implications for identity theft, political discourse, revenge porn, influencer culture, and entertainment, are as fascinating as they are worrying.

The prospect of the current administration — with its tenuous relationship with the truth and its rampant appetite for rewriting history — being able to fake anyone saying anything is downright terrifying. It’s almost as terrifying, in fact, as Don Exotic.