DeepFake Epidemic Is Looming—And Adobe Is Preparing For The Worst
deepfake epidemic is looming—and adobe is preparing for the worst

DeepFake Epidemic Is Looming—And Adobe Is Preparing For The Worst

The maker of PhotoShop and Premier Pro gave the world AI-powered tools to create convincing fakes. Now CEO Shantanu Narayen wants to clean up the mess.

By Aayushi Pratap

Imagine a deep fake video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in which her speech is intentionally slurred and the words she uses are changed to deliver a message that’s offensive to large numbers of voters. Now imagine that the technology used to create the video is so sophisticated that it appears completely real, rendering the manipulation undetectable, unlike clumsy deep fakes of Pelosi that circulated – and were quickly debunked – in 2020 and 2021. What would be the impact of such a video on closely contested House races in a midterm election?

That’s the dilemma Adobe, maker of the world’s most popular tools for photo and video editing, faces as it undergoes a top-to-bottom review and redesign of its product mix using artificial intelligence and deep learning techniques. That includes upgrades to the company’s signature Photoshop software and Premier Pro video-editing tool. But it’s also true that to “Photoshop” something is now a verb with negative connotations – a reality with which Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen is all too familiar.

Shantanu Narayen, Adobe CEO

Tim Tadder for Forbes

“You can argue that the most important thing on the Internet now is authentication of content,” Narayen tells Forbes. “When we create the world’s content, [we have to] help with the authenticity of that content, or the provenance of that content.”

So, three years ago, Adobe launched something called the Content Authenticity Initiative, starting with a handful of media and technology industry partners. It’s an enterprise that has grown to encompass more than 700 companies, with global events to publicize the push for “provenance,” as the 59-year-old Narayen calls it – in which designers and consumers of content can, if they choose to, create and track a digital trail that shows who is responsible for a given video or image and any changes they made to it.

Deepfakes are only one of Narayen’s headaches. Adobe posted $15.8 billion in 2021 sales (fiscal year ending December 3), but the San Jose-based company’s guidance missed wall street estimates in the last two quarters. Blame the usual suspects: rising interest rates, supply-chain snarls and business embargoes in Russia and Belarus. Since its peak of $688 a share in November, Adobe shares have plummeted 47% to a recent $366, versus a 26% drop in the Nasdaq. “The company is still growing, but they’re seeing significant deceleration,” says Cornelio Ash, analyst at William O’Neil & Co Inc.

“Very soon, because AI can be more powerful than human editing, you’re not going to be able to distinguish fact from fiction, reality from artificial reality.”

For years, Adobe has leaned on a suite of venerable flagship products, which it lumps together as its Digital Media group, to generate the bulk of its revenue. Products like Photoshop (first released in 1990), Illustrator (1987), Premiere Pro (2003) and Acrobat (1993) generated 73% of its revenue in 2021. But, despite a successful transition to the cloud, these businesses are slowing. The group’s annual recurring revenue has historically averaged around 20% growth, but in Abode’s most recent quarter slowed to 15.5%, Ash says.

Then there is Digital Experience, launched in 2012. These are services Adobe provides to companies by analyzing their customer’s ‘digital footprints’ – meaning tracking people’s behavior online – say how much time they spend on a specific web page and which products they view.

“If…you’ve been in engaging or interacting with a customer, and you still don’t act as if they know the customer, there is nothing more frustrating than that experience,” says Narayen. That is what the company wants to change with its Digital Experience business. While this is Adobe’s fastest growing segment, generating $4 billion in sales 2021 up 24% year-over-year, it faces intense competition from the likes of Salesforce and Google.

Adobe also faces growing competition from smaller rivals such as Australian graphic design platform Canva and U.S-based Docusign. “Adobe was a little late to respond to the market space that Canva pursued … a market space that was actually not professional designers,” says Chris Ross, an analyst at Gartner.

Much cheaper (starting at just $120/year) and easier-to-use than Adobe’s offerings, Canva has quickly evolved into a real threat. After all, who wants to pay $600/year for a Creative Suite subscription – and spend hours learning Illustrator – just to design a menu or a wedding invitation? In September, Canva, which is less than decade old, was valued at $40 billion. Melanie Perkins, its 35-year-old CEO, is currently worth an estimated $6.5 billion.

Adobe is responding. In December it launched Creative Cloud Express, a new, even cheaper than Canva, application aimed at novice users from students to social media influencers. More broadly, the company’s attitude is anything but complacent. Adobe has mounted a drive to reinvent all its products using artificial intelligence and deep learning techniques – an initiative known internally as “AI First” – which can make time-consuming edits in Photoshop possible within minutes rather than hours. “AI provides features like sky replacement, which is in one click of a button, you’re changing blue to gray,” says Dana Rao, Adobe’s general counsel and chief trust officer. “Then you can go in and make minute adjustments, but it’s a much faster task.”

In 2016, the company launched Adobe Sensei, a suite of features which, among other things, allows users to get rid of unwanted objects from video footage, smooth out skin tone, alter facial expression and change voice pitch with great ease.

Of course, the very same tools can make fiction look like fact. Rao recalls sitting with the company’s chief product officer, Scott Belsky, three years ago: “We were looking at all the innovations we had on AI editing, and we both had the same thought at the same time: Very soon, because AI can be more powerful than human editing, you’re not going to be able to distinguish fact from fiction, reality from artificial reality.

The content authenticity push is one response to that problem. Another is an extensive internal process, over which Rao presides, to subject new Adobe features and products to rigorous ethics reviews – a process that sometimes prevents the work of Adobe engineering teams from being released to the public. For example, says Rao: “On the imaging side, when we think about putting AI into our technology, we have to think about, was it trained across a diverse set of images, datasets, so that the output is respectful to all the kinds of people who use it.”

Abhishek Gupta, founder of the Montreal AI Ethics Institute, believes that attaching “truth labels” to content won’t not make much of a difference. The partisan audience for altered content often wants desperately to believe its genuine– despite all indications to the contrary. “Fake content is tailored towards people having fast interactions with very little time spent on judging whether something is authentic or not,” Gupta says.

Ultimately, says Adobe’s Narayen, consumers themselves have an obligation to seek the truth – to use available tools to verify that the images and video they view, share, post and retweet are real. “They also have that responsibility, no different from any other responsibility that a consumer has – to make sure that they’re being protected.”


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