Government partnership with big business created the internet and cell phones – an economist says it can deliver a new generation of innovations, too

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  • Paul Constant is a writer at Civic Ventures and cohost of the “Pitchfork Economics” podcast with Nick Hanauer and David Goldstein.
  • In the latest episode, they spoke with economist Mariana Mazzucato on government’s role in the economy.
  • Mazzucato says collaboration between government and corporations can boost economic “outcomes as opposed to just output.”
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

When you trim away all the complications and high-minded theories, the single mission statement of an economy under capitalism is to grow. We say an economy is healthy when it’s adding jobs, productivity, and profits, and we say an economy is sick when it’s contracting, losing jobs, and failing to hit profitability markers.

But shouldn’t we expect more than aimless growth from an economy? Shouldn’t our economy reward growth in sectors that would benefit everyone – environmental science, say – and discourage growth in sectors that harm the public good, such as the privatization of our water supply?

How government influences the economy

Government is supposed to be a counterweight on the economy’s untapped growth. Regulations, tax credits, and other incentives are supposed to encourage beneficial growth and discourage the harm produced by unfettered capitalism. But over the last four decades, the government has largely abdicated itself from the regulatory role, giving companies free license to blindly pursue growth for growth’s sake.

In this week’s episode of “Pitchfork Economics,” economics professor Mariana Mazzucato discusses her new book “Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism.” Her goal with the book is, in the words of co-host David Goldstein, to encourage a new kind of economics that values “outcomes as opposed to just output.”

“For some years now, I’ve been working with policymakers globally, trying to convince them that we need to redesign policy away from fixing markets and towards creating and shaping markets,” Mazzucato said.

That would take the form, she explained, of governments creating “a list of big problems that we have” as a society, from “the future of mobility” to “solving key issues around the digital divide,” to “getting the plastic out of the ocean.” Lawmakers would then design a strategy to involve “as many different sectors as possible to collaborate and to innovate together to solve that problem.”

Government’s role, in this case, would be as a purchaser, as a backer of “grants and loans to galvanize as much bottom-up innovation and investment as possible to actually solve problems,” and as a director of “what I’ve been calling mission-oriented policy.”

It would direct and incentivize the best of corporate America to solve some of humanity’s biggest problems, putting the profit motive to work for the greater good.

The DARPA example

Mazzucato says in the United States we already have one perfect example of a government entity that encourages innovation in pursuit of a single goal: The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. Founded in the 1950s alongside NASA as during America’s race to the moon, she says, the government established in DARPA “a new design of public-private partnership.”

“There was lots of investment by companies like Honeywell, Motorola, and General Electric,” Mazzucato said, and in the quest to build spacefaring technologies, American companies built inventions that would eventually create the touchscreens, voice-activated artificial intelligence, camera phones, GPS, and driverless car tech. Basically, without the moonshot, we might still not have the necessary technologies to build smartphones today.

But those technologies were not the end goal for the “purpose-focused” organization. “For example, DARPA basically invented and funded what we today call the internet,” Mazzucato explained. “But no one in DARPA said, ‘Oh, we need the internet.’ They had a problem to solve, which was getting the satellites to communicate, and the internet was the solution to that.”

DARPA is singularly focused on defense issues, so Mazzucato is calling for an array of new ARPAs to address societal problems, which “are much harder than purely technological ones. They often require regulatory change, behavioral change, and political change,” she said.

Unleashing innovation

When governments set these huge, seemingly impossible goals for industry, they empower our sharpest minds to broaden their thinking and elevate their game to work in concert with others. Part of the reason this framework has been far more successful than traditional corporate structures in terms of unleashing innovation, Mazzucato explains, is that the thinkers are “explicitly told to be risk-taking, to welcome the uncertainty.”

The path to the Moon was littered with waste, dead ends, and spectacular failures. That was all part of the plan. Putting government in charge of the direction establishes “the idea of having real impact so that your successes matter,” Mazzucato said, but it’s also clear about “the admission that along the way you’re allowed to fail,” in a “process of trial and error and error and error.”

Economic growth for growth’s sake is simply not enough of a mission statement for a society to thrive. Mazzucato believes that government has a necessary goal to direct that growth toward a common good, so that we all – corporations, humans, and the planet as a whole – can benefit from the journey.

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The Tom Cruise deepfakes were hard to create. But less sophisticated ‘shallowfakes’ are already wreaking havoc

tom cruise BURBANK, CA - JANUARY 30: Tom Cruise onstage during the 10th Annual Lumiere Awards at Warner Bros. Studios on January 30, 2019 in Burbank. (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Advanced Imaging Society)
  • The convincing Tom Cruise deepfakes that went viral last month took lots of skill to create.
  • But less sophisticated “shallowfakes” and other synthetic media are already creating havoc.
  • DARPA’s AI experts mapped out how hard it would be to create these emerging types of fake media.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The coiffed hair, the squint, the jaw clench, and even the signature cackle – it all looks and sounds virtually indistinguishable from the real Tom Cruise.

But the uncanny lookalikes that went viral on TikTok last month under the handle @deeptomcruise were deepfakes, a collaboration between Belgian visual-effects artist Chris Ume and Tom Cruise impersonator Miles Fisher.

The content was entertaining and harmless, with the fake Cruise performing magic tricks, practicing his golf swing, and indulging in a Bubble Pop. Still, the videos – which have racked up an average of 5.6 million views each – reignited people’s fears about the dangers of the most cutting-edge type of fake media.

“Deepfakes seem to tap into a really visceral part of people’s minds,” Henry Ajder, a UK-based deepfakes expert, told Insider.

“When you watch that Tom Cruise deepfake, you don’t need an analogy because you’re seeing it with your own two eyes and you’re being kind of fooled even though you know it’s not real,” he said. “Being fooled is a very intimate experience. And if someone is fooled by a deepfake, it makes them sit up and pay attention.”

Read more: What is a deepfake? Everything you need to know about the AI-powered fake media

The good news: it’s really hard to make such a convincing deepfake. It took Ume two months to train the AI-powered tool that generated the deepfakes, 24 hours to edit each minute-long video, and a talented human impersonator to mimic the hair, body shape, mannerisms, and voice, according to The New York Times.

The bad news: it won’t be that hard for long, and major advances in the technology in recent years have unleashed a wave of apps and free tools that enable people with few skills or resources to create increasingly good deepfakes.

Nina Schick, a deepfake expert and former advisor to Joe Biden, told Insider this “rapid commodification of the technology” is already is wreaking havoc.

“Are you just really concerned about the high-fidelity side of this? Absolutely not,” Shick said, adding that working at the intersection of geopolitics and technology has taught her that “it doesn’t have to be terribly sophisticated for it to be effective and do damage.”

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is well aware of this diverse landscape, and its Media Forensics (MediFor) team is working alongside private sector researchers to develop tools that can detect manipulated media, including deepfakes as well cheapfakes and shallowfakes.

As part of its research, DARPA’s MediFor team mapped out different types of synthetic media – and the level of skill and resources an individual, group, or an adversarial country would need to create it.

MediFor threat landscape.pptx

Hollywood-level productions – like those in “Star Wars: Rogue One” or “The Irishman” – require lots of resources and skill to create, even though they typically aren’t AI-powered (though Disney is experimenting with deepfakes). On the other end of the scale, bad actors with little training have used simple video-editing techniques to make House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appear drunk and incite violence in Ivory Coast, South Sudan, Kenya, and Burma.

Shick said the Facebook-fueled genocide against Rohingya Muslims also relied mostly on these so-called “cheapfakes” and “shallowfakes” – synthetic or manipulated media altered using less advanced, non-AI tools.

But deepfakes aren’t just being used to spread political misinformation, and experts told Insider ordinary people may have the most to lose if they become a target.

Last month, a woman was arrested in Pennsylvania and charged with cyber harassment on suspicion of making deepfake videos of teen cheerleaders naked and smoking, in an attempt to get them kicked off her daughter’s squad.

“It’s almost certain that we’re going to see some kind of porn version of this app,” Shick said. In a recent op-ed in Wired, she and Ajder wrote about a bot Ajder helped discover on Telegram that turned 100,000 user-provided photos of women and underage children into deepfake porn – and how app developers need to take proactive steps to prevent this kind of abuse.

Experts told Insider they’re particularly concerned about these types of cases because the victims often lack the money and status to set the record straight.

“The celebrity porn [deepfakes] have already come out, but they have the resources to protect themselves … the PR team, the legal team … millions of supporters,” Shick said. “What about everyone else?”

As with most new technologies, from facial recognition to social media to COVID-19 vaccines, women, people of color, and other historically marginalized groups tend to be disproportionately the victims of abuse and bias stemming from their use.

To counter the threat posed by deepfakes, experts say society needs a multipronged approach that includes government regulation, proactive steps by technology and social media companies, and public education about how to think critically and navigate our constantly evolving information ecosystem.

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