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Lithium AI models are Instagram’s dystopian endgame

Sep. 24, 2020
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At first glance, you might think she’s real. Her street-style aesthetic, 20-something face, and millions of followers indicate influence and beauty. You might guess that she’s a YouTuber or model or singer. And technically, you wouldn’t be wrong. Influencer Lil Miquela is all those things. But real is not one of them.

Lil Miquela is the most prominent face of an eerily seductive technological trend: AI models. The Instagram model/influencer/singer/general internet personality is actually a computer-generated image designed by an artificial intelligence company in LA. “She” (and I hesitate to call the account “she”) is a fascinating microcosm of what happens when the world shifts completely online. Miquela hangs out with “real” influencers, models for fashion houses, posts about current events. She even thanked Collina Strada for “bringing” her to Carnaval 2020 in Brazil. What used to be sponsored trips are now companies paying AI designers to create a CGI of an AI influencer at a particular location—and in the internet age, is there really a difference between Lil Miquela posting a picture of her in Brazil and you posting a picture of yourself in Brazil?

Miquela may be the most popular of these virtual influencers, but she’s certainly not the only one. AI model Shudu Gram was the first AI influencer designed to look Black, and while this may seem like a positive trend, it’s actually a reflection of how the idea of representation has been co-opted by these sophisticated algorithms in order to keep users addicted to the feed. Shudu is, according to her white male creator, modeled after a South African princess Barbie, making her a fantasy constrained by Eurocentric beauty standards. White men designing “ethnic beauties” for their own profit isn’t a cool technological innovation—it’s just creepy.

The problem with AI models isn’t just that they visually deceive followers, but rather that the ethics of their creation and implementation is often shaky. Miquela and Shudu can’t really do anything wrong because they aren’t real. It’s the programmers behind their profile that are capitalizing on very-not-digital aspects of life, such as race and gender, to tout a Silicon Valley fantasy of a digital future. Just because ethnic ambiguity is aesthetically popular right now (and therefore profitable) doesn’t mean it should be used to amass influence. In that way, Lil Miquela is just the final result of Instagram’s algorithm, a cohesive product of what the most profitable image is on Instagram at this moment.

With that in mind, avatars like Lil Miquela shouldn’t be portrayed as if they experience personhood. Lil Miquela’s creators came under fire for posting a vlog about her sexual assault precisely because there are few things further from virtual than sexual assault. Assault is an extremely embodied experience, and using that to “humanize” Miquela was beyond wrong. Sexual assault also interacts with gender, sexuality, and race, none of which an avatar, a sophisticated line of code, is capable of experiencing. There’s nothing inherently wrong with AI models, but the line needs to be more clearly drawn at what constitutes personhood.

Even as we continue to critique this phenomenon, AI models aren’t going anywhere. If anything, they are the future of social media. When we post a photo on Instagram, we are an avatar to our followers. This is obviously at a much smaller scale, but Instagram has absolutely destroyed any boundary between the virtual and the real, so it only makes sense that influencers have transcended the real. If someone told me that, say, Bella Hadid wasn’t real, I would be surprised, even though there’s nothing about her that indicates to me that she is real—it’s just a general cultural truth that I’ve accepted. Whether or not an influencer is real is nothing but a placebo effect at this point.

All influencers are essentially computer-generated. To the user, Instagram It-girls aren’t people, but rather a curated stream of images catered to a particular aesthetic preference. Just like Lil Miquela, “real” influencers are simply machines of content creation. The only distinction between AI influencers and human influencers are that we choose to believe the latter is more real. But to the vast majority of users, Bella Hadid and Emma Chamberlain are no more “real” than Lil Miquela. The question is, are we?

Visual by Yoo Young Chun