Tesla lawyers argued Elon Musk Autopilot statements might be manipulated with deepfake tech

Earlier this week, a California judge tentatively ordered Elon Musk to testify under oath regarding the Tesla CEO’s past claims related to the EV company’s Autopilot software. The request, as reported by multiple outlets, pertains to an ongoing lawsuit alleging the AI drive-assist program is partially responsible for the 2018 death of Apple engineer Walter Huang. The request would also compel Musk to address previous, frequently lofty descriptions of the system. In 2016, for example, Musk alleged “a Model S and Model X, at this point, can drive autonomously with greater safety than a person.”

But before Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Evette D. Pennypacker issued their decision, Tesla’s legal defense offered a creative argument as to why the CEO shouldn’t have to testify: any documentation of Musk’s prior Autopilot claims could simply be deepfakes

Reports of the defense strategy came earlier this week from both Reuters and Bloomberg, and also include Judge Pennypacker’s critical response to Tesla’s concerns. “Their position is that because Mr. Musk is famous and might be more of a target for deep fakes, his public statements are immune,” wrote the judge. “In other words, Mr. Musk, and others in his position, can simply say whatever they like in the public domain, then hide behind the potential for their recorded statements being a deep fake to avoid taking ownership of what they did actually say and do.”

[Related: Why an AI image of Pope Francis in a fly jacket stirred up the internet.]

While there are some entertaining examples out there, AI-generated videos and images—often referred to as deepfakes—are an increasing cause of concern among misinformation experts. Despite the legitimate concerns, contending that archival recorded statements are now rendered wholesale untrustworthy now would be “deeply troubling,” Judge Pennybacker said in the reports. Although Musk’s deposition order is “tentative,” as Reuters notes, “California judges often issue tentative rulings, which are almost always finalized with few major changes after such a hearing.” 

Tesla faces numerous investigations involving the company’s controversial Autopilot system, including one from the Department of Justice first revealed late last year. Last week, a California state court jury ruled the company was not at fault in a separate wrongful death lawsuit involving an EV’s Autopilot system. Huang’s wrongful death lawsuit is scheduled to go into trial on July 31.

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