12 takeaways from future companies and innovative organizations

Why did we choose this as a topic? Well, today, the world is changing faster than ever before, with technologies and cultures rapidly shifting as the digital era kicks into full gear. Yet how are we changing as humans? To look to Parmenides, change is but an illusion, the river changes but its bed is always essentially the same. Us humans are indeed the same specimens as our ancestors, but our experiences are undoubtedly changing.

So with such speed, and such a disconnect between our changing context and our human nature, how can our organizations continue to not only function but flourish moving forward? We are already mastering our systems and processes, yet we find that innovation today is still elusive to the many. This is why we must look to the human factor as the cornerstone of this next period of innovation.

Split across two days of individual stories and parables that we can take lessons from, this is 12 takeaways we gained from this edition of maize.LIVE: Future Companies & Innovative Organizations.

 Parable: Home Of The Brave  Carlo Boccadoro 

 Takeaway: Have Courage in What You Do 

Bravery in art is everything, if you are not brave you are not an artist you an entertainer which is about reinsurance”. This was the message Carlo Boccadoro, the esteemed classical composer, delivered in his opening talk, Home Of The Brave, about the need to push buttons and be courageous in order to succeed.

Taking on us a musical journey spanning centuries, from Matteo Da Perugia’s shaking up of rhythm, through to Claudio Monteverdi’s invention of Opera and insertion of humanity into music – a medium only for the gods prior – all the way to the Beatles and their game-changing release of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Band in 1967.

Whether it be Beethoven, Chopin, or Steve Rage, by challenging their audiences and going against the grain, these artists managed to make music for the future, music that would be respected by music lovers and scholars alike for centuries to come.

It is this courageous ethos that must be imparted into everything an organization does going forward. If not, it has no chance of making an impact in the future, a future that is already upon us.

 Talk: Why Leaders Should Bet On Freedom and Responsibility Isaac Getz 

 Takeaway: Ego a Go-Go 

Next up were some wise words from Isaac Getz, a celebrated professor who has had a huge hand in informing businesses about how a strong culture eats strategy for breakfast every time.

In his speech, Why Leaders Should Bet On Freedom and Responsibility, Getz points out that corporate liberation can only begin when leaders put aside their ego, stating that the true measure of leadership is the measure of freedom granted to any given talent within an organization. The question now then is not: “Can any company be liberated?” but, “Can any leader let off their ego and let the company be liberated?”

Leadership then is not a position assigned by superiors but a role granted by those who decide to follow. Self-realization and self-direction are key in achieving this, as what individuals need on the ground are very simple: “Respect, consideration and the feeling that you trust to their intelligence.”

Among numerous examples, Getz pointed out how in 1973 Harley Davidson had 80% market share, this dropped dramatically to only 15% in 1982 and rose once more to 51% in 1999. How did they do it? Over the course of two years, a new company mission was drafted, the executive committee resigned, and the company decided to capitalize on their own people’s intelligence through natural work groupings by approaching their talent through a more coach-like role than that of a traditional leader.

In short, leadership is about transferring inspiration to talent and encouraging them to lead themselves.

 Talk: Don’t Try This At Home  Tomas Barazza 

 Takeaway: Forge Your Own Path 

Tomas Barazza from Strategy & Innovation Culture shared his journey in creating an organization that is distributed and self-managed. The main message of his talk, “Don’t Try This At Home”, was to highlight some of the core values that underpin any innovative organization.

Throughout his career, as ideas were revised, recycled, and revamped elsewhere, Tomas’ journey began to include more people in the developing story. To do this, Tomas and his team began to leverage people’s ideas and interests, encouraged collaboration and bolstered an already project-oriented approach. This would culminate in wethod, an operating system with no organization chart and a project-oriented approach. No roles, even fewer rules, this approach helped to reduce an individual’s ego without crushing their entrepreneurial spirit.

For Tomas, he believes his business’ success relies on some key factors: self-determination, space to maneuver, as well as purpose, trust, and transparency. Self-determination is taking responsibility to direct your own path. Space to maneuver is the acceptance that mistakes will be made but also learned from. Purpose, trust, and transparency are the pathfinders in this journey. If the purpose is known, everyone is working in the same direction, if we trust and show transparency when it comes to information, everyone involved knows how to go about directing themselves in that same direction.

Tomas states that although this was his experience, it was exactly that. There is no one size fits all approach when it comes to innovation today. However, if you are consistent in your values and willing to challenge the status quo – great things are likely to happen.

 Talk: Serve People, Not Processes: Why HR Must Change Lucy Adams 

 Takeaway: Put the Human back into Human Resources 

Later on in the day, Lucy Adams took to the stage and delivered her talk, Serve People, Not Processes: Why HR Must Change. Pointing out how mechanical HR has become, Lucy set out her guidelines to bring the individual back to center stage in the HR world.

Her manifesto, EACH (Employee, Adults, Consumer, Human), aims to renegotiate the role of HR today and transform it into one where respect and dialogue take front stage.

Employees, Lucy states, aren’t assets. They are people with individual needs and ideas. This is why a more tailored HR, one that addresses this fact, is paramount moving forward: universal doesn’t work for the individual.

HR has always been tied closely to finances, this idea too must shift. Instead, Lucy says we should begin to think of HR as the cousin of marketing. Employees, as consumers, have specific needs and, like marketing, HR must study what their own end-consumer wants if it is to remain relevant and effective.

 Riding Giants: Re-Booting a Multinational Company’s OS Marius Swart 

 Takeaway: It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over 

The final talk of the first day, Marius Swart of Henkel explained that digital transformation is never finished. Technology, culture and people, the three core elements he identifies behind the digital transformation, are always changing. His talk, Riding Giants: How To Re-Boot a Multinational Company’s Operating System, explained how.

Whilst digital illiteracy and lack of time are major barriers for companies hoping to achieve digital transformation quickly, Swart states that a proper use of data analytics, an agreement on the metrics you wish to impact, and growth in the budget over time as those metrics are reached, are all key in facilitating this change. Further to this, by ensuring that your IT is agile and prepared for change and that your talents are aware of the developing digital context, businesses can surf the wave of digital transformation. Just make sure to remember that there is always another wave on the horizon.

 Parable: The Infinite Intelligence Of Plants Stefano Mancuso 

 Takeaway: Collaboration is Natural 

Professor of botany Stefano Mancuso channeled his inner Immanuel Kant to explain how we only see what we want to see: in particular, plants. In his talk, The Infinite Intelligence Of Plants, Mancuso noted that we rarely focus on plants, nor their collaborative nature, even though they account for 99.7% of the world’s biomass – citing the absence of plants in prehistoric drawings as evidence of this long-standing phenomenon.

Why this is, he states, is simple – we barely notice that which our evolution deemed unnecessary for our survival. But plants are not something we cannot learn anything from. On the contrary, they not only live but are also capable of sensing their existence in relation to other plants and their surrounding – making collaboration a fundamental tool for their survival.

But that is not the only tool at their disposal, in fact, plants are able to produce sounds as well as localize roots effectively. This has been proven time and time again by slime mold studies which have demonstrated that plants, when given the right stimuli, will generate the most effective and streamlined solutions to problems such as reproducing the transport networks of various cities across the world.

Mancuso’s point is that these living systems are highly intelligent and worthwhile of our attention. Until now, we have failed to see how we could possibly learn lessons from our inanimate neighbors because our evolution was rapidly different. However, with the emergence of distributed organizational structures (a common theme throughout nature), our ideas of animalistic hierarchies in the workplace are fast becoming outdated.

 Talk: How Technologies Change Collaboration Mark Van Rijmenam 

 Takeaway: Digest the Data 

Data is the new oil is the popular mantra of the moment. But what uses is oil if it is unable to be refined? In his talk, Come Together: How Technologies Change Collaboration, Mark Van Rijmenam pointed out that the deluge of data companies are now flooded with each day is useless if it cannot be harnessed in a smart, effective way.

How should companies deal with this problem going forward? Van Rijmenam suggests that in face of the approaching reality that by 2015 we will interact with a connected device every 18 seconds, companies who wish to be innovative must reject silo culture and instead focus on collaboration and the mixing of data in real time to react to their context innovatively.

Parallel to this change is the structure and framework that ensures that it can be achieved on the ground. Citing IBM as an example, Van Rijmenam detailed how they effectively imbued their organization with transparency by utilizing data in a new way. Blockchain is another example: with tools such as smart contracts allowing us to move into a system where trust, decision making, and governance are solved with cryptography, code, and reciprocity. Cryptography, for example, enables us to create new forms of identity, personal, private, persistent, portable and protected.

Van Rijmenam finished by reminding us that there are many layers to the digital transformation and that businesses cannot simply rest on their laurels moving forward. Instead, companies must utilize the many existing and emerging tools available and turn their organization into entities built on trust and decentralization – hallmarks of any innovative organization.

 Talk: Keep it Small, Keep it Simple Jos De Blok 

  Takeaway: Problems are Opportunities 

Buurtzorg’s founder Jos De Blok delivered a more succinct message that came from personal experience: Keep it Small, Keep it Simple. Detailing the outstanding climb of Buurtzorg since it’s launch in 2007, his talk made clear the importance of discovering how to overcome, in a creative way, specific industry challenges.

Before Buurtzorg was launched, an analysis of healthcare was taken which consequently shaped exactly the direction the company develops. The result? A decentralized private healthcare service model with no hierarchies that has now been adopted globally with cost savings of up to 40% and overhead costs almost 20% lower than average (25% down to 8%)Self-management was key here, and team sizes of up to 12 individuals were responsible for the organization and the complete care process. Both patient and employee satisfaction now sit a 9 out of 10.

Such a situation allows for the funding of more innovation within the company, and for Buurtzorg to focus more on its purpose then on its profits. By focussing on the problem at hand, clarity can shine a light on the solution moving forward. Those who try to take on board too much too soon will likely become disillusioned by the transformation. But with focus and dedication to the values you are built upon anyone can become a future company or an innovative organization and survive today’s fast-changing climate.

 Talk: Building a Culture in a Period of Self-Disruption Sebastian Shaw 

 Takeaway: Self-Disrupt 

Adobe veteran Sebastian Shaw made clear what had kept Adobe ticking all these years: self-disruption. In his talk, Reinventing the Organization: Building a New Culture in a Period of Self-Disruption, In 2013, Adobe announced that their multibillion-dollar portfolio of industry-leading creative applications would transition to cloud distribution. But why? The answer lied in the explosion of content that could be sourced from this new channel, and how this idea created an entirely new platform for creativity.

Adobe’s shift from a product company to a Software-as-a-Service one allowed it more time to react to consumer feedback. Instead of waiting months upon months to release a new product, they could update in real time whenever the situation required them too – listening to both data and feedback – reiterating their services as a result.

In this space, design, product development and engineering had to work together, creating a new environment for collaboration that would prove to be only the tip of the innovation iceberg impacting business models, industry standards and employees.

 Talk: Motivation Matters: Creative Spaces Jordi Closa 

 Takeaway: Start Now 

Jordi Closa from adidas centered his talk, Motivation Matters: Creative Spaces Where To Connect, Share and Learn From Each Other, on the importance of motivation in the workplace in remaining relevant and creative today. Explaining the concept behind adidas Makerlab – a dynamic workspace that fosters collaboration between any adidas employee, no matter their role – Closa explained the importance of challenging people and moving them out of the comfort zones and encouraging them to start new things as soon as possible.

Makerlab encourages experimentation, sees the importance of failure, and emphasizes the importance of coming together and making something new. The hardest part is starting this process, but once started, Makerlab is guided by the 3 c’s of adidas: Creativity, Confidence and Collaboration. Ultimately, this space is special due to its ability to grant the tools and the freedom to create. Less siloing, more collaboration, forever striking a balance between the digital and the physical, Makerlab at adidas is a model worth keeping an eye on.

 Talk: The Pathway to Sustainable Happiness  Sandro Formica 

  Takeaway: Take a Course in You

Sandro Formica was next on stage, in his talk, Self-Awareness: The Pathway to Sustainable Happiness, he communicates that society is entirely focussed today on doing rather than being – pointing out that throughout a child’s education, they are not once asked to study themselves and their personal state of mind.

Individuals, he states, need a purpose in life, and employers need to be aligned with their employee’s values (and vice versa) if they are to remain innovative. He stresses that companies must check on their employees’ needs and understand if they are satisfying them. To do this, Formica points out many ways to increase our emotional intelligence, and how to be more attuned to what makes employees their most effective. In short, it revolves around companies first being true to themselves. If they do that, they cannot fail.

 Parable: The Pursuit of Happiness. An Ethical Reflection Andrea Nicolini 

 Takeaway: Revolutions Create Happiness 

The final talk of the event, philosophy professor Andrea Nicolini explained the link between power, happiness, and revolution. In his talk The Pursuit Of Happiness. An Ethical Reflection on Revolution, Nicolini collected input throughout the event and using this content he theorized that revolution always revolved around the ego. It was the ego which would drive the need for the redistribution of power, and this ego grew out of an increased level of self-awareness that gave would-be revolutionaries the strength to attempt to bring their vision of the future into the present.

Citing the French Revolution as an example, Nicolini stated that revolution comes from a possibility becoming a necessity. In today’s climate, this is true of how businesses are reflecting on their own organizational structures, and beginning to implement the changes of tomorrow, today.

What do Walmart, Amadeus and the NYT have in common?

Disruption, a word on the verge of becoming as overused as digitization. We have come to a point where it is almost impossible for any business person to have a debate without these words entering the conversation. And usually these words come with an implicit conclusion: only digital-born companies will survive. Time, capital markets and customer expectations run against the so called “traditional companies”. And yet, there are indeed examples of established companies that have been able to find ways to adapt to this new world and remain appealing to their customers.

This is the story of some of those successes.

The Incredible Shrinking Time

The wave of change in technologies and markets is washing away a number of companies at a very fast pace. Boards are trying to cope with that pace with a wide range of instruments: from large IT investments to fierce M&A activity or changes in management, whilst at the same time redefining industry scope and boundaries.

According to Dan Marcec (Director of Content & Communications at Equilar, Inc.), a recent Equilar study has shown that at large-cap S&P companies, CEOs´ median tenure has dropped a full year since 2013, down to 5 years (see graph 1).

Consequently, by the end of 2017, more than a third of the CEOs had been in that position for less than 5 years (see graph 2).

Increasing pressure is exerted on large companies around the world. According to Pierre Nanterme, CEO of Accenture “Digital is the main reason just over half of the companies on the Fortune 500 have disappeared since the year 2000”.

The combined effects of a large number of technologies (from Big Data to Machine Learning) and trends (like customer centricity) have given birth to the so-called network effects, or “the winner takes it all”. The virtual circle of users, data, value and revenues has led to an increasing concentration in several markets, as well as a trend of “blurred lines” between sectors.

There are different strategies to cope with the changes imposed by the tech wave, all of them one way or the other encompassed in the term “digital transformation”. But the challenges are common to many industries: the need to manage time (especially for listed companies), the evolution of valuation or the stock price, the network effects and the accelerated and seemingly endless disruption. Incumbents were challenged by fast growing newcomers they did not even had under their radar.

In our view, Walmart, Amadeus and the New York Times have successfully navigated the huge changes their industries and markets have experienced over the past years. Each has followed a different strategy, but all of them have shown courage, leadership, out-of-the-box thinking and adaptability.


Retail is undoubtedly in turmoil; Amazon has been able to expand its reach from books to cloud services and is now (again) changing consumers behavior through Alexa, the virtual assistant that has entered homes and, shortly, cars too.

The turmoil is huge and the pace is fast. It is hence key to manage time.

Of the 10 biggest retailers in 1990, only two remained in 2016. While it took Amazon, founded in 1994, only 22 years to reach revenue of $120 billion, being the fastest growing retailer. Walmart — born in 1962— needed 35 years to reach $100 billion.

Historically retail evolved and developed new concepts, from mom & pop stores, to department stores and malls, to answer new demographics and consumer needs. Amazon’s explosive growth is based on a technological change.

Walmart, who reigned in the universe of US retail with 12000 stores in 28 countries and more sales than any other company, is fiercely engaging in M&A to cope. In August 2016, it acquired for $3,3 billion. Moosejaw (outdoor recreation apparel), Bonobos (men’s fashion basics), Eloquii (plus size clothing) and intimate apparel e-retailer Bare Necessities followed. At the time the transaction of Jet looked extremely expensive; yet it was probably the first step in ensuring Walmart’s survival.

However, the stock market has been merciless with Walmart and generous with Amazon.

As of April 2017, Amazon´s market capitalization equaled WalMart, Target, Macy´s Kroger, Nordstrom, Tiffany, Coach, William Sonoma, Tesco, Carrefour, Ikea and The Gap combined, as featured in “The Four” by professor Scott Galloway.

Last September, Amazon became the second $1 trillion company in US market. Compared to the total market, it is worth more than P&G, Coca Cola, and Pepsico combined.

This re-shaper of the retail industry could raise $2.1 billion before even breaking even. Professor Rita Gunther McGrath describes it as the “imagination premium” that investors are willing to pay for the promise of growth.

In sharp contrast, there was no premium for Walmart. When they announced in Q1 2016 that was increasing capital expenditures to invest in technology, it lost $20 billion in one day followed by $31 billion value lost in Q1 2018 when they revealed that e-commerce sales had slowed. Fearless and with the support of its lead investor, Walmart continued its pace of acquisitions.

The next challenge for Walmart is about using data plus intelligence to create value beyond what Amazon is already providing: how do they turn customers´ data into a competitive advantage, creating a network effect of their own.

With machine learning being the next frontier of disruption, Alexa is already deciding for us and anticipating what we want. Walmart needs to go fast not to be left out of customers´ choices by Amazon further accelerating a winner takes it all scenario.

New technologies drive endless disruption, and demand businesses to be continuously testing new ideas and endless experimentation and failure. But a high failure rate can only be afforded by those building barriers to entry and with easy access to capital. The Walmart fight is not over but it is still a work in progress!

The New York Times

First published on September 18, 1851, The New York Times (NYT) stated: “We publish today the first issue of the New-York Daily Times, and we intend to issue it every morning (Sundays excepted) for infinite years to come”.

In its lifetime since then, it was a technological shift which forced NYT to review its business model. As a reaction to falling revenues from print advertising, they introduced a paywall to its website in 2011. After a slow start, in 2017 subscription revenue accounted for 60% of the company total revenue of $1,7 billion or $1,02 billion (see graph 3).

Graph 3: New York Times revenue, in billions

Could NYT have gained time by avoiding the distribution of valuable and precious content for free through Google and Facebook? Yes, they could have. It took them a while to realize; now they seem to be on the right track.

The NYT let Google handle their search function until they realized they were building a barrier to their readership data and contributing to the value of the search giant. On the other hand, being distributed by Facebook was, in terms of value creation, very valuable for the social network. Yet one could argue that it was damaging to society; as content from NYT was mixed with fake news, hence causing some of confusion we are witnessing today.

In short: free content was contributing to the growth of Google and Facebook while no value was added to the newspaper with a vocation of lasting infinite years.

Again, the stock price suffered. In 2005, NYT acquired, an online provider of consumer information for $410 million. The acquisition was expected to have a double benefit: one, the purchasing of online know-how; but, more importantly, expecting that it would redefine how the market saw them, as there is a cost of looking like a traditional newspaper company instead of a digital one.

This last objective was not achieved as the price of their shares continued to fall, only picking up recently (see graph 4).

Graph 4: NYT, stock price history

The beauty of the subscription model, in spite of slow growth, is the access to data and the possibility to build intelligence around it. Maybe now it is the time to update its 1896 motto of “all the news that’s fit to print”.


The Amadeus IT Group, born in 1987, is a BtB company providing access to bookable content from airline companies, cruise liners, hotels and tour operators. It is an IT company that has been able to successfully face the revolution in travel. Today, more travel is sold over the internet than any other consumer product.

Founded by airlines (Air France, Iberia, Lufthansa and SAS) it has grown to a market cap over €30 billion and diversified into almost every way of travelling. In 2017, Amadeus controlled over 40% of the world travel reservations market and almost 30% of IT solutions for the travel industry worldwide.

Since the IPO in Spring 2010, the company’s EBITDA has grown 10% per annum, navigating the financial crisis as well as the changes both in the airline industry and in the way consumers buy travel. It has been through a succession of acquisitions that Amadeus has managed to adapt to the changing operational demands of its many clients, as well as spread its sectoral and geographical reach.

 In the airline industry, it has widened its customer base to low-cost and hybrid segments (through the acquisition of Navitaire, an airline hosting firm provider of technology services to over 50 airline operators) and improved its service through Cytric, a global distribution system-agnostic platform acquired through one of their M&A moves.

This intense M&A activity has also been a key tool in expanding the hospitality sector, with the aim of offering a cloud-based suite of services that allows property owners to have a “single view of the guest” from a sales, management and customer perspective. Over the years, Amadeus bought Newmarket International (IT solutions for large and midsize hotel chains) and Itesso (a property management system provider), and also developed a strategic relationship with IHG to build a community-based Guest Reservation System.

This constant and successful fight to keep at the forefront of its business has resulted in a continuous upward trend of Amadeus´s stock price, that has raised more than 600% in seven years. In terms of value, it is now worth more than the combination of its four founders.

But, as with many other companies, Amadeus had to cope with the stock markets short term demands. After an initial IPO in 1999, it was bought out by some private equity investors and one initial shareholder to help the company undertake the large investments and provide the time needed to cope with technological change. It took them 5 years to go back to the open market and become public again in Spring 2010 (see graph 5).

Graph 5: Amadeus, stock price history

But disruption is far from over: a combination of trends is impacting Amadeus´ business model. On the one hand, the airline consolidation has led to very few companies controlling regional markets (in the US, the top 40 airlines control 80% of the market — against 40% ten years ago; in Europe, the top 5 carriers control more than half of the market — versus 38% in 2007).

On the other hand, airlines are starting to grow increasingly interested in maximizing the value of their passengers, posing a threat to the Global Distribution System Amadeus has successfully mastered.

Chart 1: How Flight Distribution works

Therefore, Amadeus needs to keep on creating new lines of business and rewriting the way they develop their core activity. Hence, the company has been fostering new business lines such as Hospitality, Airports and Payments, while strengthening its role as an IT provider for Airline companies.

That is why Amadeus announced in early 2018 the acquisition of TravelClick — a hotel technology company that will allow them to start selling business intelligence software to large hotel chains as well as to mid-size and independent hotels (the bulk of the hospitality market) — for $1.5 billion.

What do these success stories have in common?

As said, the three companies have shown courage and determination in dealing with disruption, but that’s not the only common feature; there are others as well (see chart 2).

Chart 2: Walmart, Amadeus and NYT: common features

They all needed financial strength to cope with stock markets pressure. In two cases (Walmart and NYT) they are family owned businesses and the third one, after the first IPO, went through a buy back and only after material investments, a subsequent IPO. Hence, they all had the license to operate thanks to shareholders providing access to capital in funding their transformation.

Strong leadership has also been key to their success: the NYT had the same Chairman for twenty years (one member of the founder family), Amadeus had a long-term President and CEO coming from the company (he was Deputy CEO and responsible of Global Strategy back in 2009) and Walmart also had a Chairman from the founder family.

The three companies have embraced M&A as a way to acquire know how and technology, and in some cases to gain new customers and markets, widening their boundaries.

They all understood that technology was the driver of change and success, building the processes and business intelligence to own (and use) their customers data. That is an outstanding common feature: understanding who their end customer is and creating the products and services attuned to that customer.

Customer centricity is hence at the heart of their journey. A journey that is far from over as in the digital age, permanent change is the norm.

What are deep fakes?

Deep fake, a portmanteau of “deep learning” and “fake”, is an artificial intelligence-based human image synthesis technique. It is used to combine and superimpose existing images and videos onto source images or videos.

For the past year, deep fakes have been picking up traction in the news as people have become more aware of a technology that has been described by researchers at New York University as the “menace on the horizon”. But what has facilitated this fear? Is it warranted? Why did Vice’s Motherboard feel the need to maturely report that: “We are truly fucked”? Let’s find out.

Whilst digital forgery is nothing new, deep fakes use computer programs which harness artificial intelligence in creating what is arguably a watershed moment in how far we have come in opening up the doors of deception.

Deep fakes are created by a machine learning technique called a “generative adversarial network” (GAN). Invented initially by student Ian Goodfellow in 2014 as a way to algorithmically generate new types of data out of existing data sets, this multi-use technology was released onto the internet last by Reddit user ‘deepfakes’ who made the algorithm available using open-source code late last year. Reddit would go on to ban ‘deepfakes’, but it proved too little too late: the technology had already spread, which is where things get a bit more interesting.

You see, deep fakes can recognize patterns in how a person behaves through audio or video recordings of them thanks to the process known as deep learning. This doctored content can then be seamlessly blended with other content as more elements are added. To add to the manipulation, voice-cloning technology – which breaks down audio recordings into bitesized half syllable chunks – can then create a fake dialogue that replicates the person depicted in the video. This voice-cloning technology was also used to create voice assistants such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa.

The implications of this technology are obvious, with the rise of fake news, deep fakes add another layer of lies which can be used to misinform and manipulate individuals into thinking that certain individuals have said or done something which they have not. The most common case in point for the time being is on the seedier side of application: with deep fakes up until now been mostly used for creating pornographic videos of celebrities by mapping their faces onto old pornographic material. However this is just the tip of a very illicit iceberg, and fears that this technology can be used even more nefariously still are proving to be well grounded indeed.

An example of a deep fake video.

As comedian-cum-director, Jordan Peele clearly demonstrated upon the release of his own deep fake, one of former President Obama. Now viewed over 5 million times, it shows the former president referring to his predecessor Donald Trump in an obscene fashion. The deep fake took over 56 hours of sample recordings to create, with the bigger the library of content the deep learning algorithm has to work with, the more realistic the result will be. Apple recorded 10 to 20 hours of speech to create Siri, and, according to a number of reports, voice clones can be made from little more than a few seconds of material. Toby Abel, from AI firm Krzana, described to the BBC the challenges that lie ahead: “The insidious danger of mass amounts of fake news is that we don’t know what to believe”, he said. “I don’t think we have yet got to a point where we know how to handle this”.

Not only is this technology becoming more ubiquitous by the day, with apps such as FakeApp (now removed from the internet) already promoting its popularity, but it is also now the centerpiece of a new technological arms race as academics and researchers try to tame this technology before bad actors do. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University recently created a system that can transfer characteristics, such as facial expressions, from a video of one person to a synthesized image of another. Whilst China’s Baidu and a handful of startups such as Lyrebird and iSpeech have been selling voice cloning for commercial use in human-machine interfaces.

So how can this problem be contained? For the time being, it seems unlikely. Only six months ago, the potency of this technology in spreading disinformation was made clear when a small left-leaning Belgian political party, Socialistische Partij Anders (sp.a) posted a bombastic deep fake of Donald Trump across their channels, provoking hundreds of Belgians to express anger at their neighbors across the pond. “It is clear from the lip movements that this is not a genuine speech by Trump”, a spokesperson for sp.a told Politico in an exercise in damage control. Apparently not.

All is not lost, however, and researchers have identified certain cues that could indicate a video is a deep fake – with jerky movements and lack of blinking being tell-tale signs. It is true that such details can be missed by viewers, but one would hope that as these videos permeate our lives more and more, the populace will wise-up to what is and is not real (just as there are many more people today than in the past who can identify a photoshopped image for example). It is also true that by increasing the saturation of a video of a person, it is possible to detect the subject’s pulse from the almost invisible change in facial skin. In the case of deep fakes, this is not the case, and the truth is shown.

There is, of course, two sides to every technological coin. And with deep fakes, this is no different. There are of course some positive applications to this technology. One example is the Scottish firm CereProc, who creates digital voices for people who lose their own through disease. Vocal cloning can also serve an educational purpose by recreating the sound of historical figures, just as North Carolina State University did when they synthesized one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s unrecorded speeches.

For now anyway, the cons far outweigh the pros, and, unfortunately, the fact remains that the type of machine learning that produces deep fakes is difficult to reverse and thus detect. For now, all that individuals on the ground can hope for in countering this technology would be to remain vigilant. Moving forward, it would be wise to update that age-old maxim: don’t believe everything you read. Instead, welcome to a world that is home to a new saying: don’t believe everything you see.