Why the New Viral Lensa AI App is Causing So Much Controversy
by Brianna Allison
This article was written by The Zillennial Zine’s fall editorial intern Brianna Allison. Find her on Instagram at @ballison7. If you would like to share an article with The Zillennial, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’ve been on social media recently, I’m sure that your feed is full of your friends, followers or even celebrities posting multiple images of themselves as avatars, like astronauts, fairies, princesses and more. What’s that about? Well a new app, Lensa AI, has gone viral over the last few weeks for its new feature called Magic Avatars. The AI-powered app takes selfies uploaded by the user and transforms them into digital portraits. Now that sounds fun and harmless, right?
Well, it might be fun, but it’s not harmless. There has actually been quite of Lensa app controversy… or should I say controversies. After it gained popularity, the app was speculated to be stealing personal data, generating sexualized images and exploiting local artists.
Let’s take a look at this new social media craze!
What is Lensa AI?
Lensa is a photo and video editor app that has been around since 2018. The app allows you to retouch and improve faces, replace or blur the background of your photo, use unique filters and effects and overall, perfect your photo. Although it’s been around for a few years, it didn’t gain popularity until the release of their Magic Avatars feature. The app can be downloaded via the Apple App store or the Google Play store. And even though it is the number one free app in both app stores, it’s not really a free app.
After a 7-day free trial, if you would like to continue to use the app you will have to purchase a year-long subscription to their editing services, which costs about $35.99. And if you’re thinking that you can just use the week-long trial to test out the Magic Avatar feature, try again. There is an additional fee to do so. To get 50 avatars you will need to pay $3.99, for 100 avatars you’ll need to pay $5.99 and to get 200 avatars you’ll have to pay $7.99. So, is it worth it?
If you decide to follow through, then you will be asked to upload 10-20 selfies. Lensa recommends using close-up pictures with a variety of backgrounds and facial expressions and says to avoid group pictures, kid pictures, covered faces or pictures with nudity. The images are then transformed using their AI software. It will take approximately 20 minutes for your avatars to be created. You’ll then be able to view the generated images which will show you as “avatars in a variety of different styles like Fantasy, Fairy Princess, Focus, Pop, Stylish, Anime, Light, Kawaii, Iridescent and Cosmic.”
The controversy behind the app
Let me restate that, the controversies behind the app because there are actually more than one. Here they are…
At first, there was the usual concern of privacy. Some privacy experts shared that they were concerned that the Lensa app was keeping the photos that users were uploading. However, they claim that the company says otherwise.
Prisma Labs, which developed Lensa AI, shared on Twitter that they permanently delete the users’ images, avatars and data right after the avatars are generated. Just like any app on your phone, it’s up to you to determine if the app could potentially threaten your privacy.
The unnecessary sexualization
Is it just me or are these AI selfie generator apps perpetuating misogyny? Here’s a few I got just based on my photos of my face. pic.twitter.com/rUtRVRtRvG— Brandee Barker (@brandee) December 3, 2022
Now, the next controversy. There have been many users who have claimed that the AI app is overly sexualizing them. For some, the app made their avatars nude, scantily clothed or gave them a small waist with big boobs.
The Guardian put this theory to the test. They uploaded images of 3 famous feminists: Betty Friedman, Shirley Chisholm and Amelia Earhart. They shared that the app made Betty Friedman “a nymph-like, full-chested young woman clad in piles of curls and a slip dress.” They said that Chisholm “had a wasp waist.” And lastly, they explained that Amelia Earhart was “rendered naked, leaning on to what appeared to be a bed.”
Melissa Heikkilä, a senior reporter at MIT Technology Review, shared that she was astounded by her avatars after comparing them to her colleagues. She said that Lensa generated 100 avatars for her, of which 16 were topless and 14 more were skimpily clothed and in sexual poses.
However, her colleagues had more “realistic yet flattering avatars for them—think astronauts, fierce warriors, and cool cover photos for electronic music albums.” Heikkilä felt that her Asian heritage played a part in her avatars. Not only did her male colleagues have different types of avatars, but so did her white female colleague. Although she still had some sexual avatars, they had far less than Heikkilä. This shows that Lensa is using its AI software to perpetuate stereotypes, racial bias and misogyny.
The ethics of AI and stealing artists’ work
To sum up,AI produces unique images based on the principles derived from data, but it can’t ideate and imagine things on its own. As cinema didn’t kill theater and accounting software hasn’t eradicated the profession, AI won’t replace artists but can become a great assisting tool— Prisma Labs (@PrismaAI) December 6, 2022
Lastly, we need to question Lensa and their understanding of the ethics of AI. Many artists have spoken out against the app after it gained such quick popularity. They argue the avatars and images that are being generated “have been trained using other people’s original work.”
In other words, the app is essentially mimicking artists’ work and style for profit. Artist Karla Ortiz said to The Guardian, “Companies like Lensa say they’re “bringing art to the masses, but really what they’re bringing is forgery, art theft [and] copying to the masses.”
Not only is Lensa profiting off of these artists and never giving them credit, but there’s even evidence that the original artist’s signatures are visible on the app’s avatars. Lensa poses major copyright issues and shows little regard for the artists they are exploiting.
I’m sure you’ve seen the AI-generated images all over social media over the past few weeks, but you might not have been aware of all of the Lensa app controversy. Privacy issues, stereotyping and exploitation may be detrimental to Lensa’s reputation. So was its popularity short-lived?
Have you tried Lensa? What do you think? How do you feel about the controversial app? Let us know in the comments below!