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A GIF and a Curse: The Thin Line Between Morphin and Deepfakes

A new app that allows anyone to insert themselves into popular GIFs uses the same image-mapping technology employed by the malicious creators of NSFW hoax videos

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In these bleak technological times, it is increasingly rare that a new app manages to not only capture consumers’ attention, but also inspire joy. Morphin might just be one of them. The app, launched on Wednesday, asks users to take a simple selfie which they can then insert into popular GIFs to employ as they choose. Want to see what you’d look like as Leo in The Great Gatsby, smugly toasting the crowd? What about seeing yourself doing the Obama mic drop? Or maybe you’d rather be Mad Men’s Peggy, complete with dangling cigarette and screw-it-all attitude? The gang’s all here, ready for your mug.

The app is quickly going viral—perhaps your own texts are lighting up with Morphin-made GIFs. It’s undeniably fun to see your likeness and your friends’ likenesses within such familiar, widely used animated images.

Morphin

Morphin is amusing, and the tech that powers it is impressive. According to TechCrunch, the app was in stealth development for three years. The image mapping works so well that users’ faces mimic the expressions in the original GIF, without taking the creation into uncanny valley territory. But the app’s ease of use is a double-edged sword: If Morphin represents the angel on image mapping’s shoulder, then deepfakes are its dark side. “Deepfakes” is the name of a Redditor who first began posting NSFW homemade videos using various software to take video footage of a person’s face and stitch it onto another person’s body in porn scenes. Since then, a community dedicated to creating deepfakes (whether they involve politicians, celebrities, friends, or even strangers) emerged online, though deepfakes were eventually banned by Reddit and Pornhub. While the process to make them isn’t quite as simple as using a smartphone app, deepfakes—unlike Morphin’s playful CGI animations—look shockingly real, which is an alarming development in an era already rife with internet misinformation.

Image mapping also has disturbing ramifications regarding identity ownership and online privacy. Bad actors have always been able to source public images for malicious purposes, but these latest advancements show just how much potential power they wield. “Deepfakes brought something pretty negative to computer vision,” Morphin cofounder Loic Ledoux told TechCrunch. “But it’s not all bad. It’s about how you use the tech to give people a new tool for self-expression and storytelling.” Ledoux’s optimism is refreshing, but it doesn’t negate an important question: How much ownership do people have, both of the content they create online and of their own image? Thankfully Morphin’s database of GIFs—as of now it’s fairly limited, but will surely grow—is rated PG, but the thought of user-friendly apps like Morphin giving people the ability to layer a face onto any animation, including NSFW animations, is worrisome. Creating deepfakes isn’t “rocket science,” as artificial intelligence researcher Alex Champandard told Motherboard, but it’s certainly harder than taking a selfie.

Morphin currently allows users to apply only selfies or images of selected celebrities (e.g., Kylie Jenner and Russell Brand) to GIFs—so your friends cannot just slap your face onto Buddy the Elf in the current version of the app. Even if they could, you’d probably be mildly annoyed at worst. Maybe you’d even like it. Hopefully Morphin can, as Ledoux said, bring a little happiness to something deepfakes made so terrifying. While the internet waits to find out, go ahead enjoy the simple, stupid pleasure of seeing yourself as dancing Steph Curry.

Morphin