Elon Musk is talking nonsense? These are deepfakes, claims his lawyer

Taken to court by the relatives of a man who died driving a Tesla, the manufacturer defended itself by saying that Elon Musk had never uttered a sentence. According to the lawyers, it could be a deepfake. Yet, there is evidence indicating that Elon Musk did say that phrase.

“A [Tesla] Model S and a [Tesla] Model X, at this point, can drive autonomously with more safety than a person. Right now.“ Did Elon Musk really say this sentence? For the Tesla boss’s lawyers, these words could come from a deepfake. In any case, this is the excuse used by his defense during a trial, Wednesday, April 26, 2023, covered by Reuters.

Elon Musk is attacked in California by the family of a man who died in a car accident with his Tesla. According to the family of the deceased, Walter Huang, he died due to a problem with the car’s automatic driving software. According to the manufacturer, the accident would have taken place for another reason: Walter Huang, playing video games on his phone at the time of the crash, would not have respected the safety instructions.

According to Walter Huang’s family (and other sources), Elon Musk said a famous sentence touting the autonomy and safety of Tesla vehicles at a conference in 2016. For Tesla lawyers, it would be a deepfake.

Elon Musk at the Recode conference — when he said Teslas can already drive better than humans. // Source: YouTube / Recode

Elon Musk pronounced this sentence well

It is easy to find the original source of the sentence. Elon Musk said it at a conference hosted by Recode in 2016. The entire interview, which took place in public, was posted on YouTube, where it has been viewed 3.7 million times in 6 years. The passage in which Elon Musk pronounces the sentence occurs after 1h19. Therefore, it seems difficult to affirm the absence of proof that the sentence was actually said.

However, according to Tesla’s lawyers, Elon Musk would be unable to remember having said this sentence, which would cast doubt on the veracity of the video. “Elon Musk], like many people, is the subject of numerous deepfake videos and sound recordings, which depict him saying or doing things he has never said or done,” Tesla said. 

Deepfakes are videos made using artificial intelligence, which allows the facts represented in recordings to be altered. Early deepfakes were mostly used for pornographic purposes, with creators putting the heads of stars on the bodies of porn actresses in order to create fake sex tapes. Since then, their use has taken a more political turn, especially with the war in Ukraine: a deepfake of President Volodymyr Zelensky, calling for surrender, went viral in March 2022.

While deepfakes are becoming more common, the videos are relatively recent and the media are quickly analyzing where they came from. In the case of Elon Musk, the fact that it could be a deepfake is particularly unlikely: the video in which he utters the phrase dates from 2016, a period in which the technology was still underdeveloped. It’s more of a conference, in which you see many different people interacting. It seems unlikely to say that it could be a fake video.

However, it is the defense that Tesla’s lawyers have chosen. In response, Evette Pennypacker, the trial judge, ordered Elon Musk to record a deposition. He will have to say they’re under oath if he pronounced this sentence well. According to her, Tesla’s statements would be “deeply disturbing”, reports Reuters.

“Their argument is that because Mr. Musk is known and could be a target for deepfakes, his public statements are exempt,” she wrote. She also laments the fact that such arguments could keep Musk and others from “accountability for what they say and do.” It was long believed that with deepfakes, it would be harder and harder to discern the truth, because of the malicious people who would use them to misinform. This situation shows that there is not always a need for deepfake to question the facts.

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