How AI Avatars And Face Filters Are Altering Our Conception Of Beauty
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The year is 2154. The population has reached over 20 billion people, putting resource-hungry humans in conflict with the Indigenous Na’vi population, who are determined to preserve the planet’s natural beauty. This is the premise of Avatar: The Way of Water, which came out on Friday. When the original Avatar was released in 2009, we marvelled at James Cameron’s ability to transform actors into beautiful, other-worldly humanoids. Today, the Avatar aliens appear not only less impressive, but also more like us, because in the 13 years since their debut, we’ve developed the technology to instantly transform ourselves into fantastical avatars online.
The latest example of such technology is Lensa, a photo editing app that generates digital avatars from selfies. While Lensa has been around since 2016, the app has surged in popularity this month, reaching over 25 million downloads and making the company half of its total $16.2 million annual profit—$8 million—in December alone. The app’s rise to fame hasn’t come without controversy—Lensa has faced accusations that their avatars are based off of stolen artwork and there is concern that user’s uploaded selfies are used for AI training by Lensa’s parent company, Prisma.
The less obvious—but perhaps equally as concerning—impact of these seemingly harmless “magic avatars” is how they are contributing to an increasingly optimized and digitally-inspired beauty ideal, one that beauty culture critic Jessica DeFino says is, “as detached from humanity as possible.” A patient of Kim Anderson, a licensed clinical psychologist and executive director of the Eating Recovery Center, describes it aptly in her experience of using an AI filter app, “it’s like I’m trying to look like something that isn’t even human.”