The AI Avatar: From Possibility to Problematics
© AI art via the Lensa App // In frame Lucy Faulkner
Controversial, inspirational and confrontational: a collaborative perspective on AI-generated art.
Art has the ability to encapsulate what it means to be human. It can be a way of understanding the past - for example, how stylistic features can represent aspects of class and accessibility to resources. It is also a means of expression of voice, identity and self-representation. Perhaps it even offers an insight to the future.
But what does the 'art of the future' look like in a world with vast technological advances?
It may not be much further out of reach - recent ‘AI-generated’ avatars have taken the internet by storm, where artists and activists alike argue the authenticity of this AI art.
The avatars are curated by the Lensa AI app that generates super-human avatars using AI technology. You submit a series of selfies that the AI app then uses to cross-reference with a data set of over 400 million images. The avatars are then created in the following styles: light, cosmic, fairy princess, focus, iridescent, kawaii, pop and stylish.
But complicit in these images are other features too: sexualisation, white-washing, and implicit fat-shaming, with avatars appearing slimmer and taller than reality.
AI art: the case for an unprecedented art heist.
AI art might seem like it wondrously materialises from scratch by hard-working bots, but how exactly do apps such as Lensa work and why is it causing such a stir within the creative community?
To train its AI, the app uses a copy of the open-source neural network model: Stable Diffusion. The model sweeps through millions of images on the internet, which are collected into a database called LAION-5B. Stable Diffusion then utilises these images to master techniques that it employs to produce new works.
So, when you download your portraits, you may be thinking, ‘wow, they look like highly skilled digital artists made them’ - well, they sort of were.
The catch is that no individual artist is being credited or reimbursed for their artwork; there is no possibility for them to even give permission for their art to be used in the first place. This is ironic as the company behind Lensa, Prisma Labs, is monetising from these AI avatars, whereas the original creators are left with nothing.
Although Lensa claims that the AI portraits “are not replicas of any particular artist’s artwork,” in many images, “the mangled remains of an artist’s signature is still visible,” states Lauryn Ipsum, an artist and graphic designer. It comes as no surprise, then, that artists believe that their intellectual property and creative soul has been implicated.
Furthermore, many people within the creative arts are often struggling to make ends meet, and many artists are arguing that Lensa’s portraits are, firstly, taking away commission opportunities and, secondly, undercutting their ability to charge a fair price for similar portraits. In all, it seems that everyone is profiting, except the artists themselves.
As Daily Beast’s Tony Ho Tran puts it: Lensa is engaging in “arguably the biggest art heist in history.”
Granted, AI art is technically legal, but these apps are clearly altering the face of creative labour in lasting, daunting ways. We will certainly see more conversations surrounding AI arts' effect on artists' livelihoods. Still, the one question on my mind is this: could these algorithms, which cannot create their images without artists' work, one day replace them?
© AI art via the Lensa App // In frame Victoria Applegarth
But what’s the harm, really? An argument for inspiration. It’s the endless debate that has never reached a conclusion: there seems to be no universal understanding of where the boundary between “inspiration” and “stealing” lies. It has been said time and time again by creatives across all industries: it is pretty much impossible to create something entirely new without overlapping a little bit with what already exists. And, as a society, we’re pretty happy to accept this: we continue to enjoy songs that sound like other songs and marvel at paintings that look like other paintings.
However, though I am not one myself, I can understand the frustration of artists when a digital model utilises their work - it somehow feels less authentic than a real life, walking-talking person taking inspiration from you. So, is it the difference between a human and an AI model that causes the line between theft and inspiration to become blurred?
But perhaps this is the problem. For most of humanity’s existence, we have only had other people to compete with - we’ve never had to navigate AI before, particularly not in the creative industries. So, do the same rules apply? I think it’s nonsensical to argue that they should be different: if we would happily let anyone walk into an art gallery and take inspiration from the work there, we should allow the same online.
It feels to me like the major issue is that there is a clear, traceable link between the art and the “thief,” and our intrinsic nature as humans is to find blame. But I can’t help thinking this isn’t entirely warranted. If an artist wants to reap the benefits of sharing their art online and they do so un-paywalled, unwatermarked and without opting out of scannable AI databases (which yes, they can do), do they have a justifiable leg to stand on when making claims of art theft?
At the end of the day, one of the primary functions of the internet is to create a shared space for the free exchange of ideas - whether by humans or by robots.
How are these AI-generated images influencing what someone is ‘supposed’ to look like? How is it affecting young people?
Let’s be totally honest: I like a filter. Plumper lips, longer lashes, bigger eyes - I don’t look quite as tired and haggard after a long day when I snap a selfie and post it to my followers on Instagram. It lifts me and my mental health briefly - before I have to tell myself that I’m just kidding anyone who hasn’t met me in real life. From a mental health perspective, I’m not proud of it. Because I know I’m distorting myself and setting a bad example to my children and young people who look up to me. I also ask myself: Am I betraying my unique face and body by pretending I look a bit cuter, fresher, and younger than IRL?
Cue an invasion of AI Avatars on my Instagram feed, which, in equal measures, intrigues and unnerves me. I’m confronted with perfect faces, where even the flaws have been turned into beauty spots. And suddenly, I feel the same discomfort as when I was a young and impressionable teenager who yearned to look like the airbrushed models in magazines.
As I stare in the mirror and compare myself with AI versions of my online community, I wonder: “Is this what I should look like? Where are those cutting cheekbones, and why is my face not symmetrical? How come I will never look as pretty as everyone else around me?”
Whereas I’m older and stronger now and know I’m no longer at risk of letting those moments of weakness rule my life and mental health, I’m more concerned how these filters could potentially harm body images of children and teenagers who have already got enough pressure through constant exposure to social media.
I’m not alone with those thoughts. A recent article exposed other problems, with users commenting that the AI Art App has whitened or lightened their skin, made them look thinner or overly sexualised in their images. I fear this will only endanger attempts to bridge societal divisions and worsen mental health battles in an already broken society.
As with everything, education is key, such as raising awareness that there is a clear line between a real person and a digitally created and enhanced image. One question remains, though:
Why, despite body positivity movements, working tirelessly towards a more inclusive, equal, diverse and representative society, do we always end up back here? How do we again end up in this imagined world where beauty is solely defined by immaculate and sculpted appearances that ignore our inner values and the growing severity of mental health issues and societal divisions?
© AI art via the Lensa App // In frame Lucy Faulkner
From astronauts to fairies - AI art is imagining alternate realities.
It’s not just about the ‘perfect’ face; the symmetrical cheekbones, gazing eyes with a captured sparkle, toned bodies and alluring lips. It goes beyond what an illustrated ‘perfect’ version of you may look like. It reconceptualises your identity. From abstract astronauts to fairies in fantastical settings, it is a creative reimagining of what you might be like. The AI avatar is meant to be unrealistic and metaphysical.
It presents the possibility of existing in an alternate reality, where you can be the center of your own cosmos, live your own fairytale or star in your own kawaii cartoon.
From AI avatars to creating different worlds in the metaverse and designing AI fashion garments worthy of the greatest fantasy novels, is it unimaginable to want to escape reality?
Of course, there is a myriad of complicated implications (as discussed above) in being confronted with an unattainable version of yourself, presented as ‘perfect.’ But maybe it’s nice to imagine the possibility of being ‘perfect’ and existing in a world where everything else is too.
I study mediation and conflict resolution, where I naively do not want to watch movies about violence or read too many news stories about perpetuating cycles of inhumanity because I hate what the world can be like. I want to escape to my fantasy novels and live among the fae and fairies of the worlds that exist in books. In an alternate reality, I would like to be a fairy.
I know that sounds ridiculous, but maybe we’re not far off from escaping reality to be the most ideal versions of ourselves, and live in the most ideal version of this world.
But what happens when it all comes crashing down? When we’re reminded of the reality we live in every day?
Emma Louise Alvarez
AI art is many things: controversial, inspirational, confrontational - it reflects back at us not only the unattainable perfect versions of ourselves, but also perhaps a glimpse to the future. Where filters, surgeries, the ever-growing metaverse, and constantly changing notions of ‘beauty’ and ‘perfectionism’ will continue complicating how we view ourselves, both in reality and within a metaphysical perspective.
Perhaps it is a way of understanding where we are now. Will this moment mark an important transition period in history for future generations? Only time will tell.