A woman in her mid 20s: Looks like she’s been to Coachella twice. Has disarming brown eyes that stare into my soul. A programmer in his early 20s: Bowl cut. Could use a better shave. Seems like a creep. A social services director around 50 with red hair and ’50s sunglasses: I suspect she loves to read and knit. A stay-at-home mom, around 30: Bleach blonde hair and refreshingly coffee stained teeth. Probably loves Trump.
I have created all of these people out of nothingness. Each soul took a mere two seconds to appear in front of me. And all I had to do was hit my browser’s refresh button. I am a god, and you can be one, too.
I’m on the website This Person Does Not Exist, created by Silicon Valley software engineer Phillip Wang. Each time you visit it, the site generates a unique face–a head-on photo of a human dreamed up by computer code. There is no explanation. No FAQ. No viral branding scheme. It’s just a face that has never existed before that moment. And when you refresh, another. The faces will just keep coming into infinity.
“Someone even found Trump in there,” Wang tells me over email. Terrifying!
Wang didn’t create this AI tool himself. He actually set up the site by importing the publicly available system StyleGAN, created by the graphics chip company Nvidia.
“Literally anyone can just clone the Nvidia code, download the brain, and start dreaming up images,” says Wang. He adds that once this AI is trained on how to create a face–laborious work that Nvidia did for him–it’s a highly efficient program. “The face generation AI you see is only 300mb, but contains infinite faces,” he says. The server he uses to power it costs him just $150 a month.
People have already trained StyleGAN to create cats and animé building off of Nvidia’s research. But This Person Does Not Exist is an example of how complicated AI can be copied and given a dead-simple UI to quickly democratize cutting-edge computer science for anyone who has access to a web browser.
Last year, we watched a similar process when deepfakes code, disseminated to the public, enabled computer users with relatively little coding skill to replace faces in videos. Suddenly, any Joe Blow with a laptop and the time to collect some headshots had the power of an advanced special effects house like ILM. This Person Does Not Exist only generates static, head-on portraits, but what it creates is the face of a novel human being. The image isn’t traceable through TinyEye or any reverse-image search system, either, which proves just how easy it’s become to forge identities online in the modern era.
Wang didn’t create the site to enable abuse of any kind, though. He created it because he says he’s “very worried” about our future, and he wanted to make the public aware of how far technology has advanced so quickly. “It’s an assault on our sense of reality. Societies are built on top of beliefs,” Wang writes. “Judging from the reaction, most people seem to be very unaware this was possible.”