My Word: Open wide and fake it 'til you make it

Remember: It’s important to differentiate between smiles that are genuine and those that are fake.

 AN ADVISER for Yoon Suk-yeol during the presidential election campaign in South Korea  poses for photographs with a carefully created image of the candidate.  (photo credit: HYUN YOUNG YI / REUTERS)
AN ADVISER for Yoon Suk-yeol during the presidential election campaign in South Korea poses for photographs with a carefully created image of the candidate.
(photo credit: HYUN YOUNG YI / REUTERS)

I’m not scared of my dentist, but I am highly suspicious of my toothbrush. That’s not as irrational as it sounds. I recently purchased a top-line electric model. The price gave me no reason to smile but it came highly recommended in the fight against cavities and gum disease. The toothbrush and charger kit came with instructions in an impressive range of languages but I couldn’t understand them. A degree in computer engineering would have been more useful than my rusty BA in Chinese and the English was anything but plain.

The more I read, the more my jaw dropped. It would have been convenient had I been ready to put the brush in my mouth. I found the on-off button but I was turned off by all the recommendations. Forget sticking in batteries and ready to go. This toothbrush is meant to be operated via a smartphone. Don’t ask me how: I haven’t tried linking my toothbrush to the app. I’m too scared about what might happen.

I’m a technophobe at the best of times. I keep imagining a scenario in which my toothbrush is hijacked. The more linked to the Internet of Things we are, the more we open ourselves to being hacked. I got carried away with an image of trying to call Alexa for help with a mouth full of buzzing toothbrush bristles gone rogue until one or other of us bit the dust.

I’m sure the toothbrush is very smart, smarter than me, in fact, but there is something sinister about a toothbrush that gets so personal. I have a nightmare vision of the toothbrush reporting back about everything it found in my mouth, the whole truth about the tooth, and being bombarded with ads on Facebook as a result. 

Big Brother is getting too personal

 Brushing teeth (Illustrative) (credit: PIXABAY) Brushing teeth (Illustrative) (credit: PIXABAY)

The potential privacy problems left me with a bad taste that wouldn’t go away no matter how much I cleaned, flossed and used mouthwash. Were I to download a toothbrush app, I would probably obsess about having to be fully dressed while brushing my teeth in case the camera was taking pictures of more than just the remains of supper stuck somewhere only the smartphone could see. Who needs Big Brother policing your oral hygiene regime? The thought alone set my teeth on edge.

Unwilling to leave it to its own devices, I’m using the toothbrush on the most basic mode and hoping for the best. As it is, lights flash and it cuts out whenever it feels I’m applying too much pressure. It’s strange to have a toothbrush that is more sensitive than my teeth. 

I’m sure there is a need and market for ever more sophisticated dental healthcare, like any other field of healthcare, but I miss the simple, soft, homey touch of a toothbrush meant to be controlled by your hand rather than your omnipresent phone. I’m hoping that in time I’ll learn to brush away my fears.

A lesson from South Korean elections

IN THE “WHAT will they think of next?” category, I realized that it’s not just our household devices that are getting creepier. I struggled to hear a news item above the noise of the toothbrush as I stood wide-eyed, open-mouthed and vulnerable in front of the bathroom mirror. Elections are in the air, again. Among the related stories is the very real fear of fake news. What you see is not what you get. 

In the recent elections in tech-savvy South Korea, for example, a new phenomenon was unleashed. In what earned him the title “The Deepfake Candidate,” the People Power Party’s Yoon Suk-yeol was represented in the race by an avatar, a younger, cooler, virtual version of himself. Apparently, Yoon – the real person – and his team were concerned that he came across as too old and severe. 

Yoon’s digitized videos looked like him – only better – and talked like him, but in meme-perfect sound bites. It’s common for politicians everywhere to have their speeches written for them but in Yoon’s case, not only was his campaign team responsible for what he said, but it was delivered using artificial intelligence – very intelligent but very artificial. It gives politically correct a new twist.

As TheFutureParty media group noted in a story on Yoon: “Here’s something that will make your head spin even more: during the campaign, People Power Party head Lee Jun-seok said, ‘Yoon is learning from his AI Yoon messages.’... And in another bit of irony, AI Yoon team-head Baik Kyeong-hoon said that the goal of the avatar was for voters to see ‘the human side of Yoon –  not the stern image he projects on television.’”

It may be my age, but sometimes it feels like the world is being increasingly controlled by a generation that needs an app to brush their teeth and control almost every other aspect of their lives. Older and wiser are no longer synonymous. We are being manipulated.

I suppose the use of avatars could at least solve the problem of how to be in two places at the same time, handy not just during campaigning. Anyway, it seems to have worked. In March, Yoon squeaked in to become president of South Korea.

Although Yoon produced his own deepfake version, there is a very real risk that foreign entities could deliberately create a fake avatar for their own malicious purposes. Among the things that poor Volodymyr Zelensky has had to contend with recently was a deepfake video briefly circulated on social media in which he appeared to be telling his troops to surrender to the Russian forces. Zelensky fought back with his own better video, without the lip sync effect, declaring he would continue to defend Ukraine and so should the Ukrainian soldiers and people. 

Fake news has a life of its own. It’s a cyber threat in its own right. The old adage: “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is” should be complemented by the similar sentiment: “If it seems too bad to be true, check it before you spread it.” 

The truth comes out

Unfortunately, however, checking the veracity of an item is not as easy as it should be. There’s a tendency to be more excited by the sensational than the mundane and for a person to go with a story that fits their existing beliefs.

Ahead of writing this column, I checked a couple of news sites to see what had become of Yoon since his election. He should have stuck to the fake version. A Reuters report on July 6 noted, “Scandal has cost South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol two nominees for a single ministerial position, a first in the country’s history and a new setback for a leader facing plunging poll numbers.”

The same day, over in Britain it was hard to keep track of the number of ministers who quit Boris Johnson’s government. 

Getting a job and being able to keep it are, as we all know, two different things. It’s something that Naftali Bennett discovered last month when he left the prime minister’s job before even moving into the Prime Minister’s Residence and it’s something that the media savvy Yair Lapid will also need to keep in mind in his efforts to hold onto the top spot. 

Ahead of the recent rounds of elections in Israel, and we’re coming up to the fifth in three years, there have been claims from both Left and Right concerning the use of bots (web robots) and fake accounts that have been created to influence the results. There is also concern that fake news spread on election day could affect voter turnout, which this time could be more critical than ever as a factor in creating a new coalition.

It’s easy to go from being healthily skeptical to doubting the veracity of everything you see, hear or read. In this particularly stressful pre-election period maybe my supersmart toothbrush can offer some useful lessons: Keep it clean; don’t apply too much pressure; and we all need to regularly recharge our batteries to function properly. And remember: It’s important to differentiate between smiles that are genuine and those that are fake.

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