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Shallow fakes

Back in the innocent days of my childhood, one of my more serious aunts gave me a set of four gramophone records, vinyl seventy-eights. These were not for my entertainment but were intended to teach me a moral lesson: don't cheat.

The records told the story of a small boy, Sparky, who was learning to play the piano, just as I was in those days. One day his piano did what every suffering music pupil dreams of — it started to play by itself, beautifully, like Rachmaninov. It was a magic piano, and it could even talk. It warned young Sparky to enjoy the music, and never on any account to use the powers of his magic piano to impress grownups and pretend that he could play the music by himself.

Naturally, this was exactly what young Sparky did, as any of us would. He was hailed as a child prodigy, a second Mozart, and soon found himself on the concert platform, ready to play his talented piano before a distinguished audience. Of course, the piano (obeying Murphy's Law of Magic Pianos) went silent at this point, and young Sparky was exposed as a cheat and a fraud.

The moral message of that story made no impression on me at all. I desperately wanted a magic piano of my own to impress Miss Franklin, the piano teacher, and to get out of taking any more piano lessons.

The trouble with moral stories is that they ignore human nature — in this case, the universal human desire to appear to have talents and abilities that we don’t actually have. Faking is an industry. In some sense, it may be the only industry.

The original player piano has been around for a long time, and so has the gramophone. We know that singers on TV, and sometimes in so-called live shows, routinely mime recordings of their own songs because the electronically-improved versions sound so much better than the singers themselves. Now we have a whole new wave of technology that promises to create not just fakes but deep fakes, indistinguishable from the real thing.

But no deep fakes are unnecessary. The old shallow fakes are working just fine in show business, in politics and just about everywhere else. We are conditioned from childhood by advertising, which is 100% fake. By the time we grow up, we are inevitably fatally in love with lies, which are so much more agreeable than the truth.

Computer technology allows us to mimic almost any skill, including flying a jet plane, driving a racing car or balancing our bank accounts. Students can buy sophisticated term paper software to help them get those A's. The more linguistically challenged among them can use spelling and grammar checkers to polish up their imaginary resumés. Writers can and do buy commercially produced computer programs to create plots for their novels or screenplays for their movies: creativity in a box.

It's a deceptive world out there. The academic and scientific professions have always attracted their share of fakers of all kinds, but a lot more of them have been exposed recently. Meanwhile, armies of electronic detectives are diligently researching the research and analyzing articles and books in search of plagiarism, invented results, and faked data. But it's a losing battle. Sparky’s magic piano plays on and on.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.