Do deepfakes foreshadow the fall of civilization and the end of all truth? Or are they just good fun?
Or is there a third possibility: that they’re the foundation of a massive new opportunity to experience what could never be real (for most of us) and a massive new opportunity (for influencers and stars) to essentially become a merger of real person and synthetic being in millions of ways in dozens of languages for billions of people … simultaneously.
We kick off with the app growth story, featuring Elon Musk and The Rock, Dwayne Johnson. We move into the deepfake controversy. And we end with Dima’s vision of the future: a merge of real and synthetic beings for brands, stars, and influencers.
And scroll down to subscribe to the podcast, watch the video, and read the transcript.
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(This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.)
John Koetsier: Do deepfakes foreshadow the fall of civilization and the end of all truth? Or are they just good fun?
Welcome to TechFirst with John Koetsier. I’ve written a lot about the dangers of deepfakes, but there’s another angle, right? There’s an angle that’s also just about fun. Reface.ai is that story. It’s been a huge viral hit on the App Store, Google Play top charts for the past few months. According to Apptopia, the app has over 60 million installs — we’ll get the actual scoop on that when we chat today.
To get some insight and dive a little deeper, we’re chatting with Dima Shvets, one of the founders. Welcome, Dima!
Dima Shvets: Thank you. Thank you, John. Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
John Koetsier: Well, it’s a real pleasure to have you. Looking forward to this. We’ve been working on this for like a month. My schedule, your schedule, it hasn’t coordinated. You’re in Kiev. I’m in Canada … so it’s a little challenging, but it’s all good.
There’s two stories here, right? I mean, there’s this massive viral success; there’s this fun app that people are enjoying, having fun with. And there’s this deepfakes as a space and all the baggage that that brings. Let’s start with the fun stuff, a massive viral success. Apptopia says you have over 60 million installs. Is that in the ballpark?
Dima Shvets: Yeah, that’s kind of right, so we have almost 70 — we have 69 for now, yeah, 69 million.
John Koetsier: Excellent. Excellent. I mean, and by the way, I’m showing — this is me as Rambo. I used the app, that’s my face. I have hair, it’s incredible. [laughter]
Dima Shvets: Yeah. Make people happy again, and with hair.
John Koetsier: Well, we need it a little bit of happiness right now, don’t we? Talk a little bit about the path. It’s been [a] pretty wild ride? Or has it been fairly smooth?
Dima Shvets: Hey, it was a hard ride because, frankly speaking, deep tech is not easy at all. It’s a sophisticated tech that should be developed and a lot of different factors and circumstances should match in order to create something really big, something viral, and some that actually have tech advantage and specifically some barriers to entry.
Because to be honest, we are from Ukraine, and all the founders understand here how to start to build the start of a product story. But what is more, even harder to build a deep tech story here, because most of the investors here invest in like marketplaces as businesses, those who actually can gain traction really fast. In our case, we did our best [with] our own resources without help from other prominent angels to actually bring the technology to life.
And one of the greatest milestones when we developed technology for swap faces in photo, and like this famous tweet by Elon Musk to Dwayne Johnson that was all kind of — not product market fit, but it was a sign that we’re doing the right stuff and we need to proceed.
Yeah, and after that we launched Doublicat. And after that we launched Reface, but it’s much more, you know, viral and pleasant story than the actual efforts to build the tech.
John Koetsier: That’s been really interesting actually, just to hear you say that, because you’re right. I mean, your area, Ukraine, you’re known for startups that are like, kind of in real spaces with real customers with real technology … and not to say that yours isn’t real, but the consumer space is not one that we’ve seen massive viral hits come out of your area in Ukraine.
What’s been the secret of your success here? Is it right idea? Right execution? Right time? Is there a degree of luck? Is it amazing extreme skill? Is it an Elon Musk endorsement? What’s the secret here?
Dima Shvets: John, I want to be frank with you. It’s like [a] combination of all the factors you actually pointed out. You’re right, in Ukraine we are kind of, we are more outliers than the strategy that happened, because consumer is hard, even in [the] U.S.
Because actually you can do something really viral, and after that it actually gains some traction, grows, but then it stops. And all of those flywheels, mechanics, loops [of growth] are really different.
And I guess it’s a combination of the team, because we really have a broad expertise. I used to be a co-founder, managing partner in a venture capital fund. My co-founder is a tech guy, and now there’s a great product guy. And such combination of factors of great expertise in people that put efforts in something specific that won’t while viable, you know. Everybody even don’t consider that guys you can do it. Like a year and a half ago, everybody was speaking oh man, there is like Snap with it[s] masks. There is like Instagram with it[s] filters. Why do we need this stuff?
And I told guys, come on, we have a vision. It’s a hyper realistic face swap. It’s a banger. It’s a new reality. It’s the first step to real content personalization platform.
Don’t mess with us, we’ll try our best. And actually we’re trying so hard, we developed this low resolution photo, then high resolution photo face swap conditional one, then low resolution video. And now we are about to make like high resolution video face swap. Yeah. So that’s how it happened in terms of tech.
John Koetsier: Quite the story. You mentioned it already that you started as Doublicat. You switched to Reface as a brand, or as a name for your app. Why? And what difference did that make?
Dima Shvets: It’s really interesting story, John, because, you know, we call our users “Refacers.” It means that those guys, actually even when we were Doublicat, they started to say like Reface, Refacers and the community and this is what actually incentivized us and made us believe that those guys believe in us and we believe in what we do.
And we understood the Refacers work. It’s like future Google, we hope. It’s like Reface to change not only as a face, it’s beginning, but to change in actually perception how people create and consume the content, and how people actually understand the personalization. And regarding Doublicat, it’s a funny story, because initially we wanted to launch an app to test our technology in GIFs, because it has less requirements for quality and it’s actually easier to launch. And we’re thinking about like Doublicat is a game of words inside, like double cats, Doublicat it’s like duplicate.
But then my friends and investors from [the] U.S. when we were ready in February, they told us ‘Guys, if we google doublicat it’s like, it’s not D-O-U, it’s D-U duplicate and we cannot find your app, and then actually it’s misspelled.’ So when this was I realized both pronunciation/verbal issues we have to settle, and as well it wasn’t logical, you know, John.
Whereas Reface.ai is a tech team of the company built in different solutions that are based on ML, and Reface it’s actually the app associated with this technology. So we switched to “Reface.”
John Koetsier: Perfect.
Dima Shvets: And the one last thing, you know, we were thinking that when we will be switching from Doublicat to Reface it will influence our daily active users, our virality … but nothing happened. It didn’t improve.
John Koetsier: Interesting. Interesting. And the community kind of led that. You’re one of the success stories that you see in apps where we’ve seen the ability of apps to just sort of absolutely take off and develop a community of tens of millions of users/customers in incredibly short periods of time. Has that come with growing pains? How have you kept up with that? Has that caused issues in terms of capacity? Has that been difficult?
Dima Shvets: It was interesting. It has some issues I can share it with you, because that’s how we prove the fact that our team is a team of prominent engineers of people.
When we launched our latest hyper realistic FaceSwap tech in June, we actually had about 10K daily active users. And when we launched the tech and we hired ex-COO of Snapchat who was responsible for content — Alex, he’s actually the guy who was remarkable for this famous dog mask in Snap — and actually, it was [a] combination of factors. And when we launched with this content mechanics, we [grew] to about 3 million daily active users like in one and a half months.
John Koetsier: Wow.
Dima Shvets: And we spent a tiny slice of our budget on marketing. And then we understood that we needed to slow down, because we had to actually improve [the] situation with our servers, with our backend. And we understand that we might have even more traffic, even more users, but we want to provide the best service in order not to be postponed or somewhere, I don’t know actually, postpone all activity.
And that case we managed like in a week and a half to scale our capacity to up to 5 million daily active users. And then like in two weeks, we already could handle up to 10 million daily active users.
John Koetsier: So this is kind of insanity. I mean, this is the reality in our crazy digital world, right? But this is insane, you go from 10,000 daily active users to 3 million daily active users in the course of four weeks. That’s kind of mind blowing, right? 10,000 daily active users — a lot of apps would like to have that. I mean, you’re starting out as a small developer and you’re trying to build, and it feels like nobody’s installing your app, nobody’s using it, right?
But you have 10,000 active users, you go to 3 million in four weeks … I gotta do the math on that at some point. I mean, just for that curve, but that’s pretty much straight up in the air. That’s your chart, that’s your graph. Not easy to manage.
Dima Shvets: Yeah, yeah.
John Koetsier: And how do you turn off the flow? How do you tell people to stop coming in? Because when you’re doing paid marketing, you can turn that dial off, right? Because you can say, well, we’re stopping our paid marketing, we have enough users right now, we can’t actually use any more. When you’re actually getting most of those users virally and organically, you can’t really turn the dial off. You can’t take your app down from Google Play and iOS App Store can you?
When you’re doing paid marketing, you can turn the dial down and you can stop the influx of new users. When it’s organic and viral, you can’t stop that. People are just coming in, correct?
Dima Shvets: Yeah, right. Actually, it was an interesting time. A really fascinating time because people were coming and coming and you cannot stop it. You just need to serve and to make the best of the best application and to solve what do they have. But we actually were preparing for that so long. In terms of server capacity and different ability to launch some, you know, specific distribution of subservers in different countries, how to make it simultaneously, how to mix it. So we handled it really fast. But, you know, [the] organic factor was really, really, really big.
John Koetsier: Yeah. Okay, let’s talk about the other side. The other side is that you’re in an industry, deep fakes, which is super controversial, right? There’s lots of concern that as they get better and better — and you just mentioned that you’re going into more high def, high quality deepfakes — that we won’t be able to distinguish between reality and fantasy.
We already have seen lots of so-called ‘fake news’ from lots of different sources. In the U.S. national election we’ve seen that. I’m sure you’ve seen that in your country as well. We’ve seen that globally. And how are we going to deal with that?
You must have given some serious thought to this, being in the business. I’ll start here: will deep fakes get so good that we can’t tell the difference between them and real video?
Dima Shvets: Yeah, it’s [a] really good question, John, because I believe that every technology can both make harm and make good stuff, yeah? It’s a matter of perception, and how you do your business and your life, and how you actually create value, and how you bring attitude to people. So, I think that avoiding some technology like it was for Facebook and Google is not the solution, yeah.
Because I actually gave a lot of comments and articles on synthetic media, and they’re all like guys who are actually against deep fakes, face swap, and those who were for. What can I tell that we are as a benchmark company, we can see there has to be like the first one who did like this hyper realistic face swap to be responsible. And for responsible, you know, for reliable usage and responsible usage. That is why we give the only tiny slice of our tech live.
We give like about 10% of what we can do live, because we want to control the situation and you know that our tech was made for fun entertainment. And what you see? What is important, what is the difference with us? You cannot mislead with your face. Because the technology is done that way that you actually distinguish what is right and what is real, what is not. You can see specific traits of you, but you will definitely understand that this is a specific celebrity or person.
That’s our perception to give. Guys, you can make fun, but you should be responsible. You should be responsible in that way.
And I believe that every company in that space should be responsible, because the more responsible we’ll be in face swap, the more people and the public relations and different councils understand that it’s not actually a specific bad stuff, it’s synthetic media that can help different businesses, marketing areas, gaming, streaming as well, yeah? It gives an opportunity to people to co-create, and we are as a benchmark company doing a lot. And just to add some stuff, what we are doing even now, we actually are working [on a] deep fake detection tool.
And for example, if some tech was made, if some video was made with our tech, we can actually identify it. Yeah, because you cannot identify all the deep fakes. We’re not aiming that. But we’re telling, guys, if it was made with Reface technology, we can do it.
And we even speak and have in mind future consideration with big companies like Apple, Facebook, how we can work together, and to give this tool. For example, guys, you can identify some deep fake stuff, you can identify some bad semantic media, yeah? Understanding what is wrong, what is right. And this is — and other stuff is like invisible digital watermark. It means that we actually limited access to people to create the content. If you see Reface, you see the specific videos and actually it’s all moderated.
And we are thinking about launching UGC — we have UGC in beta — but we’re always giving a tiny slice and moderating all the content to identify if it has some political stuff, even it might be some adult stuff. So we are actually limiting our widespread and our virality in order to make it properly.
John Koetsier: Yes. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And, you know, that is absolutely true. I mean, I shared that video earlier of myself as Rambo. My face is sort of mapped onto Rambo, but it’s obviously not, you know, it’s obviously me and it’s obviously Rambo, and it’s obviously not real footage.
So that’s a great thing about Reface.
And you mentioned preserving or watermarking or otherwise indicating a video that has been deep faked. What would you say to people who are super concerned about deep fakes from technology that maybe isn’t yours, somebody else has created, that isn’t watermarked and is presented as authentic? Are there ways that we’re going to be able to find that out? Are there tools that we’re going to be able to use generally to understand when something is synthetic or when it’s real?
Dima Shvets: Yeah, I guess it will be possible.
You know, the more technology gets widespread, the more it develops, the more tools will occur to actually identify deep fakes. Because I would actually distribute those verticals in entertainment, because we’re entertainment and fan space. And there are specific companies who identify deep fakes for some political misuse and some adult misuse. And, because you should distinguish, because there is some deep fakes that [are] really tough to distinguish from the real, yeah?
The more tools we will have to identify real danger of deep fakes, who are hardly ever can distinguish it from the real, the better it will be for the world.
So, my vision and my perception to people who are afraid, that you shouldn’t be afraid. You actually can go to some applications like Reface and you can see how you can create different stuff, amaze your friends. You can make greeting cards, you can understand the bright side, you know, not the dark side of this stuff. And there are guys who actually control those who might do bad stuff, and there are a lot of funds you see in a lot of companies who raise enormous amounts of money to fight synthetic media, bad ones.
So don’t be afraid, enjoy your life, and if something bad happens, just find the right guys to help you.
John Koetsier: Excellent. So it’s the Jedi versus the Sith and deep faking is the force. I get it. Excellent. So what’s next for Reface? What are you doing? What are you building right now?
Dima Shvets: Yeah, we’re really excited to show all we want to do to the world, and soon you will see it. So, face swap is just the beginning. That is why we want to show the world and the people that we are not only about fun.
We are aiming to create the first ever platform for content personalization.
What it means that we started from face swap, and we are moving to other big verticals and like that actually [are] really important for us. And we had even B2B contracts before with different marketing campaigns, with different gaming companies, with different celebrities you have seen. And all that was done to validate how people, and brands, and influencers as like individual brands, can use our platform, our technology, and how can they actually compete for the seconds of attention of people — of their users. How they can distinguish from the crowd. How can they use personalized tech to actually make a great, great content?
And, you know, I would like to add to that, our main goal in coming here, one of the main goals is actually full body swap.
And we actually hired a great guy, his name is Alex — he’s Dutch, and he actually is a guy who was hunted by different great guys from Snap and other big companies, and he joined our company because he believes in our vision and perception to build [the] first ever platform for personalized content. So full body swap is the next banger.
John Koetsier: What does that mean, first ever platform for personalized content? Can you unpack that a little bit?
Dima Shvets: Sure, sure.
I mean, like generally that means that in future, we want every human to have its own Hollywood in a mobile form. So what you see now in Reface, then you can go, you can use three clicks and you can have the video of post-production Hollywood quality. In future, we want human users and brands [to] interact on our platform in [a] specific way, where they can both create and consume personalized content.
For example, we are thinking about native ads and some personalized ads.
What does it mean that, for example, you are a superstar? A Cristiano Ronaldo in soccer — in football. And sometimes you don’t want to go to be part of some commercials to some other country, yeah? You’re sometimes striving to have a great content for your social media. And what if some fans on your page can actually go to Cristiano Ronaldo page on Reface, they can see that guys, there is a challenge: create a great viral content and Cristiano will choose the best one.
You can use Cristiano’s face and you’ll be part of the story, for example, for the Nike and Cristiano ads.
What if they do … yeah, we’re actually iterating on that.
Another story, for example, like Gucci or some fashion brands and luxury brands. Those guys actually as well, for example, what if you can make a challenge in China for the most audience who are actually fighting to get Gucci stuff? And what if you make some personalized content and you can be the face of Gucci for some specific period of time in China?
And we have a lot of use cases, and what we mean that in the basis of our audience, core audience and the Facebook technology, we want to build a platform where brands and people can interact, where creators are incentivized to actually create this content — not only to consume it — and the matter of the fact that it will give different virality, different level of engagement, how people can interact.
John Koetsier: This is really interesting. I look forward to seeing how you develop this out because we’re seeing the rise of synthetic humans, right?
Dima Shvets: Mm-hmm.
John Koetsier: Created individuals, if we can call them individuals, who are owned by somebody who has drawn them, shaped them, formed them — sometimes just in imagery for Instagram, sometimes in full video and audio for other media as well, other channels as well.
And you’re kind of merging the two, it seems to me, between a real, authentic human being and a synthetic human being, and doing that in a really interesting social kind of way, participatory kind of way. I’m not sure I fully understand exactly how that’s all going to work out, but it sounds very interesting. It sounds crazy. It sounds wonderful. It sounds amazing. It sounds challenging. And I look forward to seeing how that works out.
Dima Shvets: Yeah, actually, John, you’re close. You know, I love your attitude because how I think about it … before we had only voice assistance, yeah?
We have like Siri, Cortana, this is just voice assistance you can talk to. And what if you have full body swap with face swap, and changing some traits? And you can actually synthesize your assistant not only by voice basis, but actually all the figures, all the traits, all the emotions.
And this market actually is really interesting, not only for individuals in terms of living your life, you live in several live digital lives, when you actually have your only one life in real life, yeah? And you can identify in doing other stuff. But it’s mostly about how even businesses can actually interact. Because if you are an influencer, if you’re a digital influencer, a digital avatar, you’re not getting hurt, you don’t have any mental problems — that’s, just to be honest — and you can be really, a really working machine to make content and make interaction and all this media stuff about … yeah.
John Koetsier: Excellent. I can clone myself. I can be a thousand people to a thousand — to a million fans. I can be a million people to a billion fans. And maybe eventually, you know, I’m in Shanghai and I can have the news read by my favorite Chinese star — full body, full video, full audio. Very interesting, crazy, complicated world we’re moving towards. Okay—
Dima Shvets: Yeah.
John Koetsier: So, want to draw this somewhere to a close. And this podcast, TechFirst, is about tech that is changing the world, innovators who are shaping the future. We just talked about a lot of stuff that’s very much along those lines. I want to ask you a personal question … why do you do what you do? And what change do you hope to see in the world thanks to your innovation?
Dima Shvets: Ohhh, thank you. It’s a great question, because [I] really think that I’m a happy person because I love what [I] do, and it didn’t come accidentally. Because when I joined the team, I joined the team like a year and a half ago, and those guys already did a lot of tech. We got connected before and they did a lot of stuff for semantic analysis for 2D/3D conversion. Those guys were actually monstrous and craziest people I know in the deep tech and ML stuff.
And why actually I love it, because we’re doing something that didn’t exist before. And how one of my co-founders actually tell me that it’s like dopamine, you know, dopamine incentive. And it’s always challenging you, that even like five months ago, we were thinking guys, how we can make it really live, really cool, how people actually change their lives by using our tech.
And now we are here, yeah. And now we’re thinking guys, and what if we can do that, that, that and we have a really great technology backlog and a product backlog. And we have like dreamers. And why I’m doing that, because I’m surrounded by great, interesting people, and they [do] not actually have any bias. And they don’t have any expectation how it would go, they just want to have actually [a] footprint in history.
And to be honest, you know, Reface is not only about fun and some downloads and something like that, it’s even about changing people’s perception in their lives. Because we consider that our core feature, and the core of our business is changes — not changes only as a face, but changes the lives and the perception of fun and emotions. For example, just [a] simple example, we did not only like campaigns for Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, big brands, we did even pro bono campaigns for animal march — Animal March in Ukraine against animal cruelty, yeah?
And every person that can actually be connected and to be responsible and can act in that march. We actually did an online fashion show for the fashion models who couldn’t participate because of COVID in the show, but we used 20 faces of these models. Actually all of them changed in some models going on the stage and only three models physically were involved, but those 20 who didn’t have a chance to come, they actually feel the spirit how they can do, yeah?
And why I like it personally, because I can feel myself in some specific roles, and some that I couldn’t do. So, for example, I dreamt to be a tennis player. Now I’m not a tennis player, but I can feel myself this way, yeah? And you know, like, to be honest, one of the greatest incentives why I do it because our product is about good, it’s about fun, it’s about positive emotions. That brings positive people, and such amount of great celebrities, and sports celebrities, and really great product guys who came to us now, and we’re communicating with them from the Silicon Valley, from Asia.
It really encourages me and it gives me understanding that nothing is impossible, that if you do something good and it brings joy, and it’s inevitably for a good purpose, people will love it, yeah?
John Koetsier: Excellent.
Dima Shvets: I definitely believe that all the business are good, everybody making some efforts. But when you do something great and outstanding, and it’s fun and people love it, it’s even more better to do it better and better and better and develop it.
John Koetsier: Dima, that was well-spoken and very, very, great to hear. Wonderful to hear. It’s wonderful to speak to people who are passionate about what they’re doing, who love what they’re doing, and who are on the cutting edge in creating things that we have not seen before. I want to thank you for your time.
Dima Shvets: Thank you, John. It’s a great pleasure.
John Koetsier: Excellent. For everybody else, my name is John Koetsier. Thank you for joining us on TechFirst.
I appreciate you being along for the show. You’ll be able to get a full transcript of this in about a week, maybe a couple days at JohnKoetsier.com. And the story at Forbes will come out shortly thereafter. The full video is on social channels, but will also live on YouTube forever, perhaps.
Thank you for joining. Until next time … this is John Koetsier with TechFirst.
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