Watermarking ChatGPT, DALL-E and other generative AIs could help protect against fraud and misinformation

Shortly after rumors leaked of former President Donald Trump’s impending indictment, images purporting to show his arrest appeared online. These images looked like news photos, but they were fake. They were created by a generative artificial intelligence system.

Generative AI, in the form of image generators like DALL-E, Midjourney and Stable Diffusion, and text generators like Bard, ChatGPT, Chinchilla and LLaMA, has exploded in the public sphere. By combining clever machine-learning algorithms with billions of pieces of human-generated content, these systems can do anything from create an eerily realistic image from a caption, synthesize a speech in President Joe Biden’s voice, replace one person’s likeness with another in a video, or write a coherent 800-word op-ed from a title prompt.

Even in these early days, generative AI is capable of creating highly realistic content. My colleague Sophie Nightingale and I found that the average person is unable to reliably distinguish an image of a real person from an AI-generated person. Although audio and video have not yet fully passed through the uncanny valley – images or models of people that are unsettling because they are close to but not quite realistic – they are likely to soon. When this happens, and it is all but guaranteed to, it will become increasingly easier to distort reality.

In this new world, it will be a snap to generate a video of a CEO saying her company’s profits are down 20%, which could lead to billions in market-share loss, or to generate a video of a world leader threatening military action, which could trigger a geopolitical crisis, or to insert the likeness of anyone into a sexually explicit video.

The technology to make fake videos of real people is becoming increasingly available.

Advances in generative AI will soon mean that fake but visually convincing content will proliferate online, leading to an even messier information ecosystem. A secondary consequence is that detractors will be able to easily dismiss as fake actual video evidence of everything from police violence and human rights violations to a world leader burning top-secret documents.

As society stares down the barrel of what is almost certainly just the beginning of these advances in generative AI, there are reasonable and technologically feasible interventions that can be used to help mitigate these abuses. As a computer scientist who specializes in image forensics, I believe that a key method is watermarking.


There is a long history of marking documents and other items to prove their authenticity, indicate ownership and counter counterfeiting. Today, Getty Images, a massive image archive, adds a visible watermark to all digital images in their catalog. This allows customers to freely browse images while protecting Getty’s assets.

Imperceptible digital watermarks are also used for digital rights…

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