History has long been a theater of war, the past serving as a proxy in conflicts over the present. Ron DeSantis is warping history by banning books on racism from Florida’s schools; people remain divided about the right approach to repatriating Indigenous objects and remains; the Pentagon Papers were an attempt to twist narratives about the Vietnam War. The Nazis seized power in part by manipulating the past—they used propaganda about the burning of the Reichstag, the German parliament building, to justify persecuting political rivals and assuming dictatorial authority. That specific example weighs on Eric Horvitz, Microsoft’s chief scientific officer and a leading AI researcher, who tells me that the apparent AI revolution could not only provide a new weapon to propagandists, as social media did earlier this century, but entirely reshape the historiographic terrain, perhaps laying the groundwork for a modern-day Reichstag fire.
The advances in question, including language models such as ChatGPT and image generators such as DALL-E 2, loosely fall under the umbrella of “generative AI.” These are powerful and easy-to-use programs that produce synthetic text, images, video, and audio, all of which can be used by bad actors to fabricate events, people, speeches, and news reports to sow disinformation. You may have seen one-off examples of this type of media already: fake videos of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky surrendering to Russia; mock footage of Joe Rogan and Ben Shapiro arguing about the film Ratatouille. As this technology advances, piecemeal fabrications could give way to coordinated campaigns—not just synthetic media but entire synthetic histories, as Horvitz called them in a paper late last year. And a new breed of AI-powered search engines, led by Microsoft and Google, could make such histories easier to find and all but impossible for users to detect.