In a crowded campaign office in Seoul, hip young employees are using deepfake technology to try to accomplish the near-impossible: making a middle-aged South Korean presidential candidate “cool”.
The result is “Al Yoon”, a digital avatar of Yoon Suk-yeol, candidate of the Popular Power party, opponent of the current government.
“Al Yoon” was created by the campaign team from hours of specially recorded footage of the real politician, in an attempt to send the world’s first official deepfake candidate into the fray.
From a fake video of Barack Obama insulting Donald Trump to failed New York mayoral candidate Andrew Yang campaigning in the metaverse, AI technology has been used in elections before. But deepfake is gaining popularity in South Korea, and campaign strategists see the technology as an opportunity to appeal to new audiences, especially in a country with the fastest average internet speeds in the world.
With well-groomed black hair and a stylish suit, the avatar looks nearly identical to the real South Korean candidate, but it uses bold language and meme-ready jokes in a bid to appeal to younger voters who get their news online.
It has been a great success. AI Yoon has attracted millions of views since she made her debut on January 1. Tens of thousands of people have asked questions, but it’s not the usual political audience.
“President Moon Jae-in and rival presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung are drowning. Who are you saving?”. a user asks AI Yoon.
“I wish you both good luck” the avatar answers.
At first glance, AI Yoon could pass for a real candidate, a fitting demonstration of how far artificially generated videos, known as deepfakes, have come in recent years.
The real Yoon recorded over 3,000 sentences, 20 hours of audio and video, to provide enough data for a local deepfake tech company to create the avatar.
“The words that Yoon usually utters are better reflected on AI Yoon”said Baik Kyeong-hoon, director of the AI Yoon team.
What the avatar actually says is written by his campaign team, not the candidate himself.
“We try to find humorous and satirical answers”, Baik told AFP.
The approach has paid off. AI Yoon’s remarks have made headlines in the South Korean media, and seven million people have visited the “Wiki Yoon” website to question the avatar.
“If we had only produced politically correct statements, we would not have this reaction”Baik said.
“The political establishment has been too slow in the face of a rapidly changing society”he added.
Responding to questions posed by users, AI Yoon mockingly refers to President Moon and his rival Lee as “Moon Ding Dong” and “Lee Ding Dong.”
“I want to ask Moon Ding Dong this question: Who is our real enemy?” AI Yoon says, in a thinly veiled jab at what his critics say is the president’s more conciliatory approach to Pyongyang.
North and South Korea are still technically at war, and Moon has met with Pyongyang’s leader Kim Jong Un four times since taking office, an approach candidate Yoon rejects as too soft.
The avatar politician has also used humor to try to deflect attention from Yoon’s past scandals, for example, claiming he received inappropriate fruit gifts from a construction company when he was a chief prosecutor.
“I am not beholden to persimmons and melons. I’m just indebted to the people.” AI Yoon said, though his campaign was forced to admit later that he had accepted some gifts.
The type of script used by AI Yoon’s campaign is based on the language used in the world of online games, Kim Myuhng-joo, a professor of information security at Seoul Women’s University, told local media. .
“AI Yoon reads the scripts compiled by their creators, who don’t beat around the bush,” Kim said.
Ko Sam-seog, a staff member of Yoon’s main opponent Lee, accuses the cybercandidate of “degrading political decorum”.
But the sarcasm is working: Although the polls for the March 9 election remain close, Yoon has gotten ahead of his rival Lee Jae-myung with twenty-something voters.
Baik, a tech expert, and the other two members of his team, all in their 20s and 30s, are some of the youngest employees in Yoon’s sprawling campaign.
They come up with AI Yoon’s answers in quick brainstorming sessions, which can take as little as 30 minutes, in contrast to the carefully honed rhetoric usually found in public policy debates.
South Korea’s election monitor allows AI candidates to campaign on the condition that they clearly identify themselves as deepfake technology and do not spread misinformation.
Technology has been singled out more often as harmful: The 2018 fake Obama video was produced by Oscar-winning filmmaker Jordan Peele to warn viewers about unreliable material they find online.
But Baik believes that AI is the future of election campaigns.
“It is very easy to create large amounts of content with deepfake technology”he told AFP.
“It is inevitable that this will be used more and more,” concluded.
*With information from AFP
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