The artificial influencer

Beibhinn Thorsch

At the end of the day, does it matter if the content you’re consuming was created by a real person or not?

This is a question many unexpectedly faced when in 2018, the Instagram account for Miquela Sousa (better known as Lil Miquela) was supposedly hacked (in a massive PR stunt) and made to tell the truth about who she was.

Miquela had a coming out, in a sense. She came out as a robot. Miquela is a computer-generated version of an influencer, but she is not a real person.

The hacker, named Bermuda, was also a CGI character from the same creators as Miquela, a computer company called Brud. Screen captures from Miquela’s Notes app were posted to her page, where she told the world what it of course already knew, but which she had never before admitted: Miquela is not a human being.

A tragic backstory ensued, which served to somehow make Miquela even more real to her audience. Many said how they wished she was real so they could hug her.

Miquela, now known more for her pop-star title of Lil Miquela, is a Brazilian-American 19-year-old character who first appeared in 2016 by way of her Instagram profile. The account shows Miquela working at being famous, marketing many brands and endorsing many products. She even makes music and often collaborates with other artists to do so.

She hangs out with influencers and celebrities both real and CGI, including Shane Dawson and Milly Bobby Brown. She focuses her time mostly on pursuing fashion, taking over Prada’s Instagram as part of Milan Fashion Week in 2018, and shooting a Calvin Klein campaign with Bella Hadid in which both were animated.

Miquela’s image is built on being relatable. She has posted YouTube videos where she overshares her ‘private life’, she hangs out with Blawko, her supposed male counterpart, also created by Brud. She speaks as if she is a human with feelings, appealing to human empathy. She speaks on her critics, saying:

“I think people feel a little vulnerable in general right now. They have a lot of frustration and need something to target it at. Usually, it’s something that they don’t understand. So, I try not to let it get to me too much, because it’s a symptom of people trying to digest all of the change happening every day.”

She has imperfections placed into her image, like flyaway hairs, freckles and upper lip fuzz. For the most part, though, she is a physically perfect woman, and she is starting to take the place of women who have tried for decades to become physically perfect. The difference between them is that for Miquela, it’s possible.

The computer-generated celebrity often acknowledges those who question her authenticity, and who examine how her persona has been influenced by diverse cultures and trends. She’s portrayed as a young, quirky, queer woman of colour. She speaks on this too, in perhaps the most seemingly self-aware of Instagram captions.

“I’m not sure I can comfortably identify as a woman of color. “Brown” was a choice made by a corporation. “Woman” was an option on a computer screen. My identity was a choice Brud made in order to sell me to brands, to appear ‘woke’… There it is for the digital universe to feast upon: an unabashed staging of diversity without the actual presence of people of color,” she wrote.

Generating fake celebs isn’t in itself new, but researchers say these are the most convincing and detailed pictures of their type ever made. While Lil Miquela and her counterparts repeatedly refer to themselves as robots, none of them actually are. They aren’t even created with artificial intelligence; they are simply the product of computer motion graphics.

Many speculate in comments under content she appears in, that Lil Miquela’s guest appearances, music videos, and everything she does when seen in the real world, are simply a computer-generated face placed over that of a real person. The body we see and the voice we hear is real and the face and personality are generated, essentially.

Virtual band Gorillaz garnered incredible fame, even winning a Grammy. Japanese Vocaloid popstar Hatsune Miku has been touring for years, even being dressed by Marc Jacobs in 2013. The only thing setting Lil Miquela and other artificial influencers and models apart (of which there are many more than you may expect) is their realism and their commitment to being taken as seriously as human beings.

But what is the future for these creations, which are less alive than a plant? Brud, the company which created Lil Miquela, is now valued at more than $125million. More mainstream and popular brands and companies such as Balmain have integrated the idea of the virtual influencer and created what they call a “virtual army” with a group of their own computer-generated models.

The draw for companies such as Balmain is easy to see. Virtual influencers will bend to their every need, they do not have ethics of their own, only some self-branding to maintain.

Edward Saatchi, the co-founder of Fable Studio (which are now pivoting to “Virtual Beings” to build AI characters which can interact naturally with viewers), promises to make influencers who can move between platforms. In the new world he envisions, sentient avatars, use machine learning to talk and evolve while jumping from Instagram to TikTok to Twitter and back again.

The Irish government, through Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), is exploring AI. However, it is focusing on things like crowd density information for Croke Park, and animal health for farming.

DCU leads some of the centres for research which train those who will be entering into this field of work, even AI thought leadership. Professor Alan Smeaton from the Insight Data Analytics SFI Research centre in DCU, spoke on the range of possibilities for AI.

“Artificial Intelligence is a broad church. AI can refer to computer software that carries out relatively simple maths tasks… On the other hand, AI can also involve complex reasoning,” he said.

Computer-generated pop stars are one of the least worries for those involved in AI, in Ireland at least.

Béibhinn Thorsch

Image Credit: Lil Miquela