Why The New York Times is testing controversial tech including facial recognition and deepfakes

The New York Times of 2019 is a different animal than the daily print newspaper that defined the publication for most of its life. Today, The Times is a multimedia storytelling giant that is quick to experiment with new technologies — even the most controversial ones.

Marc Lavallee, executive director of research and development for the New York Times, explained his team’s approach to new technology during a Power Talk at the GeekWire Summit earlier this month that you can watch above. Lavallee highlighted projects in which The Times used facial recognition technology, deepfakes, and other innovations to tell stories.

“One of the roles of RD, and many others at the Times now, is making sure that we understand these technologies deeply enough to be able to explain them to our readers,” Lavallee said.

One example: A New York Times reporter asked the RD team to make a deepfake video of him as an editorial project. Deepfakes use artificial intelligence to superimpose images and audio to create realistic-looking videos of people or events that aren’t real.

It wasn’t the first time the paper used a technology that the public is uneasy about. During the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle last year, The Times used a facial recognition tool to identify guests as they arrived and provide information about how they were connected to the royal couple.

Facial recognition software is a lightning rod; some research shows it has a harder time identifying women and people of color and privacy advocates have sounded the alarm about the technology.

“This is a public gathering watched by billions of people,” Lavallee said. “These are celebrities, so no expectation of privacy. We felt like it was a safe use of the technology for us to get our heads around and really understand out how to use it in the service of journalism.”

The Times newsroom is also testing more innocuous innovations. Lavallee’s team uses a storytelling technique called photogrammetry, a process of reconstructing a real environment as a 3D model using thousands of photographs. Photogrammetry allows readers to see the impacts of disasters, like wildfires and hurricanes, in a new way.

Whenever The New York Times experiments with a new technology, it’s always in service of the same goal, Lavallee said.

“The Times also has an increasing role and responsibility, in my opinion, to do more than just tell the story of what’s going on, to actually participate in ways to help combat these issues and in other ways, to help advance other areas of emerging tech,” he said.

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