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AI selfies — and their critics — are taking the internet by storm

Social media is celebrating. Artists are protesting. What is the real cost of an artificial intelligence portrait?

Lensa interpretations of our reporter Tatum Hunter
These Lensa interpretations of reporter Tatum Hunter were generated by artificial intelligence. (Lensa/Washington Post Illustration)

This month, millions of people came face to face with versions of themselves generated by artificial intelligence thanks to the app Lensa, which uses machine learning to spit out illustrations based on photos you provide. People took to social media to reflect on how the portraits made them feel and who stands to lose when artificial intelligence art goes mainstream.

“I think I have a fairly decent self-image, but I looked at the images and I was like, ‘Why do I look so good?’” said James, a Twitch streamer who declined to give his last name to keep his social media presence separate from his day job. “I think it shaved off a lot of my rough edges.”

Social media has been flooded by AI generated images produced by an app called Lensa. Tech reporter Tatum Hunter addresses both the craze and the controversy. (Video: Monica Rodman/The Washington Post)

Lensa, a photo and video editing app from Prisma Labs, has been around since 2018, but its worldwide downloads skyrocketed after the launch of its “magic avatars” feature in late November, according to analytics firm Sensor Tower. The app had 4 million installs in the first five days of December compared to 2 million in November, shooting to the top of charts in the Apple and Google app stores. Consumers spent $8.2 million in the app during those five days, Sensor Towers reports.

The app is subscription based and costs $35.99 a year, with an extra charge of $3 to $12 for packs of avatars. Upload eight to 10 photos of yourself with your face filling most of the frame and no one else in the shot, and Lensa will use the photos to train a machine learning model. Then, the model generates images based on your face in different artistic styles like “anime” or “fairy princess.”

Some people marveled at how flattering or accurate the portraits seemed. Others shared garbled images with distorted facial features or limbs coming out of their heads, an outcome Lensa warns about during the upload process.

The trend also raised concerns over the equity of images created by artificial intelligence, the effects on professional artists and the risk of sexual exploitation. Here is everything you need to know before you download.

Who made the Lensa app?

Lensa is owned by Prisma Labs, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., which also makes the Prisma app that uses artificial intelligence to duplicate photos in various artistic styles. Prisma Labs founders Andrey Usoltsev, who is also chief executive, and Alexey Moiseenkov both used to work at Russian technology giant Yandex, according to their LinkedIn profiles.

What else does Lensa do?

Like competitor Facetune, Lensa comes with a collection of photo and video editing tools that do everything from replacing your cluttered living room with an artsy backdrop to removing the bags under your eyes.

How does Lensa create AI avatars?

Lensa relies on a free-to-use machine learning model called Stable Diffusion, which was trained on billions of image-and-text combinations scraped from the internet. When you upload your photos, the app sends them to its cloud storage and spins up a machine learning model individualized just for you. Then that model spits out new images in your likeness.

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Will generated images look like me?

It depends. Some users with dark skin said they saw more glitches and distortions in their avatars than their light-skinned friends did, reinforcing concerns about equity in artificial intelligence imaging. Asian people and people who wear hijabs also took to Twitter to share inaccuracies in their AI portraits.

Usoltsev did not address concerns about the alleged tendency of the app to Anglicize results and referred The Washington Post to an FAQ on the Prisma Labs website.

Due to the lack of representation of dark-skinned people both in AI engineering and training images, the models tend to do worse analyzing and reproducing images of dark-skinned people, said Mutale Nkonde, founder of algorithmic justice organization AI for the People. In scenarios where facial recognition is being used for law enforcement, for example, that creates frightening opportunities for discrimination. The technology has already contributed to at least three wrongful arrests of Black men.

There is potential for harm on Lensa, as well, Nkonde noted. From what she has seen, the results for women on the app tend toward “generic hot white girl.” “It can be very damaging to the self-esteem of Black women and girls,” she said. “Black women are looking at this and being like, ‘Huh. Love the picture. Does not look like me. What is going on with that?’”

Because Lensa lets you choose the gender of your avatar, including an option for nonbinary, some trans people celebrated the opportunity to see a gender-affirming version of themselves.

Should I be worried about privacy?

Prisma Labs said Lensa does not share any data or insights drawn from your photos with third parties, though its privacy policy leaves room for it to do so. It also said it only uses the photos you provide to generate avatars and deletes each batch of photos, along with the machine learning model trained from your images, after the process is complete.

Prisma Labs is not using the photos or individualized models to train a facial recognition network, Usoltsev said. He declined to say whether Prisma Labs stores any data based on your photos but said the company keeps the “bare minimum.”

The real privacy concerns with Lensa come from a different angle. The giant collection of images used to train artificial intelligence, called LAION, was scraped from the internet without much discretion, AI experts said. It includes images of people who did not give their consent. One artist even found photos from her private medical records in the database. To check whether images associated with you have been used to train an AI system, visit HaveIBeenTrained.com, an engine that does not save image searches.

There is also the potential for exploitation and harassment. Users can upload photos of anyone, not just themselves, and the female portraits in the app are often nude or shown in sexual poses. This appears to also happen to images of children, though Lensa said the app is only for people who are 13 and older. “The Stable Diffusion model was trained on unfiltered internet content. So it reflects the biases humans incorporate into the images they produce,” Lensa said in its FAQ.

Artificial intelligence brings wonder and danger in image creation

Why is there backlash from artists?

Some creators have eagerly adopted AI imaging. But as Lensa avatars took over social media feeds, many digital artists pleaded with people to think twice before giving money to the app. Lensa “styles” are based on real art from real people, artists said, and those professionals are not being compensated.

“Nobody really understands that a program taking everyone’s art and then generating concept art is already affecting our jobs actually,” said Jon Lam, a story artist at video game company Riot Games.

Machine learning regenerates patterns in images, not individual works of art, Lensa said in its FAQ. But Lam said he has friends who lost their jobs after employers used their creations to train AI models. The artists themselves were no longer necessary in the eyes of the companies, he said. In many cases, LAION scraped images under copyright, he said, and Prisma Labs is profiting off the life work of artists without their consent.

Some creators have even found what look like artist signatures inside images created on Lensa. “The details perceived as signatures are observed in styles that imitate paintings,” Lensa said. “This subset of images, more often than not, comes with sign-offs by the author of the artwork.”

If you want illustrations of yourself that support traditional artists, find someone local or search through a website like Etsy and commission a portrait, Lam suggested. “I see a really bad future if we do not rein this thing in right now,” he said. “I do not want that to happen, not just for artists, everybody is affected by this.”

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