Young Scientist winner finds improved method of detecting deepfakes

8 Jan 2021

Greg Tarr from Bandon Grammar School with his BTYSTE award. Image: Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

The Cork school student was awarded the top prize at a virtual awards ceremony broadcast from the Mansion House in Dublin.

The first ever virtual BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE) has been capped off with Cork student Greg Tarr being named the overall winner for 2021.

The Bandon Grammar School student set out to put powerful computing power to work detecting deepfakes.

He has been awarded a €7,500 prize and will go on to represent Ireland with his project at the EU Contest for Young Scientists later this year.

“It’s such an honour, it’s incredible,” said Tarr in response to the award. Currently studying for his Leaving Cert exams, Tarr sees himself “almost certainly” going down the entrepreneurial route following his BTYSTE win. He cited previous winners Shane Curran and Patrick Collison, who went on to found Evervault and Stripe, respectively, as his idols.

Tarr has taught himself coding over many years and this was his fifth time competing in the Young Scientist competition.

‘The level of coding he deployed in developing the extremely complex program was guided by his deep understanding of the state of the art of this leading-edge technology’

“My project uses artificial intelligence to detect deepfake videos,” he explained in his project video submission, which can be viewed via the BTYSTE portal. “This is a very active field of research where my project was able to speed the process up by a factor of 10 while retaining state-of-the-art accuracy.”

To do this, Tarr studied the top five entries from a million-dollar contest to improve deepfake detection. He found even these winning projects could benefit from some improvement and set about rewriting the media loader, refactoring the code and training a face detector over hundreds of hours in order to make a more efficient and cost-effective system.

“Deepfakes have already had a major detrimental social impact, influencing elections, embarrassing people with the generation of fake explicit images and even conducting fraud,” said Tarr.

Tarr’s software, which is over 150,000 lines of code, could potentially be deployed at scale to filter out deepfake media.

Leonard Hobbs from Trinity College Dublin chaired the judging panel for the Technology category in which Tarr’s project was exhibited. He said that Tarr “demonstrated an expertise in computer science which was well beyond his years”.

“The level of coding he deployed in developing the extremely complex program which detects fake videos was guided by his deep understanding of the state of the art of this leading-edge technology.”

Hobbs also noted that Tarr’s ongoing participation in the contest had not gone unnoticed. “The judges have been continually impressed by Gregory’s projects at the BT Young Scientist competition over the past few years and they were delighted that he had progressed to winning the top award this year.”

Launched on Wednesday, 6 January, by president Michael D Higgins, this year’s BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition showcased more than 500 student science projects as well as a number of live side events via a dedicated online portal.

BT Ireland boss Shay Walsh said ahead of the winner’s announcement that the advantage of going online amid the coronavirus pandemic meant that this year’s projects reached a global audience. At the time of the ceremony, the portal had seen more than 3.5m visits across 77 countries worldwide.

“For more than five decades the exhibition has shown the ingenuity of Ireland’s youth and this year’s virtual exhibition is no exception,” Walsh said.

“When I reflect on last year’s award ceremony, when I spoke in front of an audience of over 1,800 people, little did I know what creativity, critical thinking and technical innovation we would need to use to be able to deliver this exhibition during a pandemic. Students this year really went beyond limits to present their projects to our judges online and they are a credit to their schools, communities, and families.

“I would like to thank all of those who put such a remarkable event together this year in a virtual setting. Together, by participating and supporting, you have provided a ray of hope and optimism in these dark days. You’ve spotlighted the talent that exists in communities across the island of Ireland and, at a time when we must stay at home, you have helped showcase that talent to people across the world.”

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.