19-year-old Brazilian-American model ‘Lil’ Miquela Sousa has 1.2 million Instagram followers. She loves Beyoncé, supports Black Lives Matter and has even hung out with Nile Rodgers. But Miquela isn’t real. She’s a CGI creation of tech company Brud. This is no secret – in April, Miquela revealed to the world that she is, in fact, a robot. And she’s not the only one – another popular influencer on the platform, Shudu, is a self-professed ‘digital supermodel’ and has nearly 130,000 followers.
Like Insta influencers, the popularity of Miquela and Shudu’s accounts means they’re often given the opportunity to promote and represent brands and products. But as with the emergence of most new AI products, their advertising opportunities have raised plenty of ethical questions.
Because how does a CGI influencer work, exactly? Shudu went viral after a snap of her wearing lipstick and nail polish from Rihanna’s Fenty collection was retweeted by the brand; Lil Miquela has featured in a full spread in V magazine, modelling the latest collections for Burberry and Chanel – celebrity make-up artist Pat McGrath even made her a #McGrathMuse in March. But how can they convince people to buy makeup when it’s on the face of someone that doesn’t exist? How can people get a proper grasp of the fit and feel of clothes when the opinion comes from an influencer who’s made up of computer-generated particles rather than flesh and blood?
Despite these doubts, AI influencers continue to thrive – and have the potential to make a lot of money. In 2017, the Federal Trade Commission stated that influencers must disclose when a post is in partnership with a company or is a paid post with the hashtag #ad or #sponsored. But as CGI influencers are still such a new and developing market, the rules are still a little murky for them. “If this influencer doesn’t disclose that a post is paid for, who is the FTC going to go after?” asks Adam Rivietz, Co-Founder and CSO of influencer marketing company #paid.
Some don’t think that transparency necessarily needs to be such a big deal here, convinced that, particularly in Miquela’s case, it’s obvious these are CGI characters and not real people – and anyway, who doesn’t edit themselves on Instagram? "How much do you see on Instagram that is authentic?" said Yoon Ahn, Co-Designer at Ambush, which worked with Miquela on an (unpaid) post. "How many Instagram models got surgically enhanced [and] are selling things? It's the same thing, isn't it? It's not real."
But whereas we get to know real-life influencers, we actually know very little about the people behind these CGI-d accounts. HarpersBazaar.com Senior Beauty Editor, Jenna Rothstein, managed to pin Shudu’s reluctant creator down for a brief interview, in which he revealed he created her image using a 3D modelling programme, using the Princess of South Africa Barbie doll and model Duckie Thot as inspiration for her look. “She represents a lot of the real models of today,” Cameron-James Wilson, Shudu’s creator, said. “There's a big kind of movement with dark skin models, so she represents them and is inspired by them."
But Miquela’s creators are a little more shady about their creation. She was made by Los Angeles start-up tech company Brud, which specialises in artificial intelligence and robotics, but little more is known – they’ve always declined requests for interviews, or ignored them completely. (They also have a male creation under their belts – the weed smoking, tattoo-faced Blawko, who often hangs with Miquela.)
So, besides the good looks, why are brands coming around to the idea of working with virtual influencers? According to Ryan Detert, CEO of AI-enabled marketing platform Influential, they’re easier to control. “Assuming the design team can design quickly enough, they will always be able to post the right thing at the right time with the right angle that the brand wants," he told CNN Tech. Plus, there’s no dodgy past that companies have to worry about, like a criminal record or questionable tweets.
The rise of influential AI shows no sign of slowing down – from Brit band Gorillaz, to Final Fantasy XIII’s Lightning Nicolas Ghesquière starring in Louis Vuitton’s SS16 campaign, CGI humans are becoming an everyday aspect of our lives. And if companies like New Zealand’s Soul Machines have anything to do with it, AI will continue to become more realistic – the company recently partnered with NatWest to create Cora, a hyper-realistic virtual bank teller. Up-close, it’s unnerving: every expression, every pore, every strand of hair, is eerily life-like, making Miquela and Shudu look like the 2D characters of a PlayStation 1 game.
So, welcome to the Matrix, everyone.