Roey Tzezana - PhD Futures studies researcher at Tel Aviv University, and lead researcher in XPRIZE
How could advanced artificial intelligence completely change society's approach to body image
In the last couple of years, DeepNude AI engines - algorithms capable of stripping any woman of her clothes in the virtual world - has begun to spread online like wildfire. These tools are now in the hands of every layperson.
What impact will these kinds of algorithms have on human society? What will it mean, when every person’s body is exposed to the general public? Will we rethink human sexuality, and develop a new indifference to the naked body? Or perhaps we will become more sexually introverted, insisting on hiding our bodies under layers upon layers of clothing?
Two very different answers to this question come from two of the greatest twentieth-century science fiction writers: Alfred Buster and Stanislaw Lem. But before I present their answer, it’s critical that we understand two points.
First, the algorithms can’t actually strip a person of their clothes. This isn’t so much like Superman's X-ray vision, as it is about educated guesswork. The algorithms provide mere guesses about the way a person looks under his or her clothes. The problem for us is that those guesses can seem incredibly realistic, since they come from algorithms that have been trained on millions of nude photos.
Second, these algorithms are here to stay. Only totalitarian regimes, where governments are in full control of the internet, will be able to restrict the private use of these algorithms. It is more difficult to see how people can be banned from using them in liberal democracies, as long as they do not distribute the altered images in public, but keep them for... domestic use. And not only that, but these algorithms will only improve over time. Their descendants, which will rapidly sprout into our reality in the coming years, will allow us to position our friends (or enemies) as the main actors in movies of all kinds, whether by stitching their faces on the bodies of the original actors, or by creating computerized avatars that look identical to those frenemies.
However, taking a sports-based program which has face-to-face activity at its core, and turning it into an online program required creative, outside the box thinking. We have basically dismantled our plans and rebuilt them, while maintaining the core values and the goals they seek to achieve.
Working together with our field team – the coaches and young leaders who work with hundreds of boys and girls throughout Israel and the Palestinian territories - we have developed engaging and exciting online programming. The idea was to make sure that we continue to talk about the values at the heart of what we do, bring the children together (virtually) and do so while continuing to use the skills and language of the world of football so beloved by these young people.
The results so far have been heartwarming. Children have participated enthusiastically in our online ‘league’. Divided into cross-community teams, they have been challenged to complete football-related tasks. Some of these have involved core football skills, such as keeping the ball in the air as long as possible. Others involve educating on diversity, using Israel’s national football team as an example, as it encompasses players from a wide variety of religions, communities and backgrounds. At all times, the participants are encouraged to continue to practice their language skills and deepen the connection between them. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the re-modelled program so far, has been the care that Israeli and Palestinian children have shown for one another amid the pandemic. Having met frequently, they want to know how each other is dealing with day-to-day life.
There is no doubt that the corona virus has brought tremendous challenges and exacted a very heavy price on the entire world. However, part of the ethos of the Peres Center for Peace & Innovation is our belief that in any situation we must look for the positive. For example, the routine of physical meetings between participants was both challenging and required a lot of resources. Although online meetings are not a direct substitute, they can take place much more often. Therefore, meetings between the field staff and the children have tripled during this period.
And now that we’ve made those two things clear, let’s move on to science fiction.
In his 1956 book, The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester tried to answer an interesting question: What would happen if all human beings would have suddenly developed the ability to teleport from place to place simply by wishing to do so?
In his book, set in the 24th Century, Bester describes how this development affected the transportation, construction and even prison industry. But most importantly, he tries to forecast how society itself - the zeitgeist - would react to a situation in which an individual can teleport at will directly into a woman’s (or man’s) dressing room.
In Bester's futuristic telling of the story, the entire societal structure has shifted to adapt to the new situation. It is not clear whether this shift was called for by women or men or both, but the end result was a return to the puritanism so prevalent in Britain of the Victorian era. Women turned to wide dresses that revealed very little of their skin or precise body shape. They hid their bodies away, literally, under their clothings. All that, to escape the attention of men (or other women) who could have violated their privacy in an eyeblink.
The algorithms that allow us to undress women and men may lead to similar societal developments. I emphasize “may” because we have no way of knowing for sure how society will respond to developments as radical as this one. It may not be outrageous, though, to consider a scenario in which individuals realize that every picture they post on the social network may easily be perverted for obscene purposes. The easiest, most intuitive gut-reaction would be to adhere to modesty, Bester style. Either by turning to more concealing fashionwear, or by quite simply abstaining from taking part in the social network and from sharing their photos on it.
Will the DeepNude algorithms, therefore, be responsible for the eventual downfall of the social network?
Perhaps. But this is not the only possible scenario.
Another interpretation of what’s to come can be found in the autobiographical writings of another great twentieth-century science writer, Stanislaw Lem. In his 1984 article Chance and Order, Lem describes how he was exposed to highly graphical anatomical depictions of female genitalia from an early age, in his father’s anatomy books. The effect may be telling: Lem reports that he simply got used to those sights, and therefore -
“The thought that a male may be highly excited by the mere sight of female genitalia strikes me as very peculiar. … I feel no repulsion but no attraction, either, as long as there is no specific erotic bond of the kind that is called “love”.”
Lem therefore concluded that as human beings we can undergo 'de-sensitization'. Or in laymen terms: when some precious things are constable available to us, we don’t get as excited about them as much as we used to.
Lem himself, according to his description, lost his passion for general female genitalia after being surrounded by it all his life - unless that genitalia was attached to the person he happened to feel actual love toward. It might be said that his lust for the flesh was converted into a passion for the soul: for that connection between two people that transcends beyond the mere body.
It is possible that the same will happen to us as well, once we are able to see every man and woman naked. But then again, Bester’s vision may be just as real.
How, then, will the future unfurl?
Will we all become sexual introverts, and maintain a level of privacy that rivals that of the burqa-clad Muslim women, and of the Victorian ladies of nineteenth-century Britain? Or perhaps we will transcend into a higher level of consciousness and learn to ignore the fleeting charms and beauty of women and men alike?
Or perhaps - and this seems most likely - we will experience a mix of the two options, with different communities and cultures responding differently to the same situation.
I don’t intend to propose any one definite answer in this article, except for one: it is nigh time for us to reconsider our morals and values in light of new technologies. We’ve always done so throughout history, and this process of evolving morality is very unlikely to end any time soon. The DeepNude algorithms will pose a threat to our current value system, but they can and should also promote a public debate about the ways in which we should think of privacy and sexuality in the future. By refraining from doing so, we will only open ourselves to even greater future shocks.
Roey Tzezana is a renowned Israeli researcher and futurist with degrees in both nano-technology and biology. Over the years Tzezana was part of many organizations and projects, helping them predict the future of human society.