Sponsorship from high-profile companies such as Samsung and Calvin Klein. An Instagram following approaching 2 million after obtaining viral fame in the first year of its creation. Photoshoots and collaborations with celebrities and online influencers. A record deal and a discography that has amassed several million streams.
Reading through these achievements, one may assume that they belong to a well-known celebrity or an up-and-coming recording artist. And in a sense, they would be right – except that all of these impressive accomplishments belong to a fictional, computer-generated character.
Lil Miquela surfaced on Instagram in 2016 and has not slowed down her ascent to stardom since then. Club 404, the company that designed Lil Miquela and branded her into the online celebrity she is today, has been hard at work expanding the number of “heroes” in its community. Their vision is to eventually develop a full platform consisting of characters similar to Lil Miquela – outrageously beautiful and impossibly accomplished.
Lil Miquela has managed to subtly inject herself into popular culture with a surprising amount of hospitality from the global online community. According to her profile, she stands for diversity and women’s rights and ties some of these themes, as well as love and loss, into her music.
Overall, she is taken very seriously, as if she were a living, physical being. But with the arrival of Lil Miquela, who will surely not be the last prominent virtual influencer, there also arrives a slew of ethical issues.
The immediate conceivable threat of computer-generated celebrities is the impact that they will have on human psychology, particularly regarding self-reflection.
Currently, there are ethical debates about the use of photoshop to make people appear different on social media, in magazines, and other forms of media. Changing the way one appears “naturally” can lead to negative thoughts and feelings among those who view it. Several organizations have faced scandals for making a model’s skin seem lighter. For a young person of color, this could lead to them developing subtle feelings of responsibility to hide their race or to modify themselves.
Now, returning to the world of computer-generated influencers, there are clearly some similar issues. What if millions of children grow up idolizing people that were constructed by a team of engineers and graphic designers? Isn’t it likely that they compare themselves to virtual influencers? And doesn’t it logically follow that for most people, they will not be able to view themselves as more successful than a creation that has a more accomplished background, more wealth, and more influence in the real world?
To an extent, Lil Miquela appears to be a good “human” being. If a real person shared their dedicated causes and past achievements, they would be viewed as a highly virtuous individual. But with Lil Miquela, there is something more nefarious in play.
The millions of people participating in the content consumption of computer-generated celebrities are actively being harmed by this content – they are likely engaging in personal comparisons and perhaps even growing disillusioned with their own ability to accomplish things. For children, this problem is even more pressing.
Propaganda and Advertising
The second fundamental ethical complication is the potential for computer-generated celebrities to be designed and used for the wrong reasons. It would be difficult to argue that the creators of Lil Miquela shouldn’t have control over her content. However, the technology used to make her could also be applied in far more nefarious ways.
Many people experience difficulty processing Lil Miquela upon their first viewing of her Instagram. Questions over whether she is real or not real arise frequently. Now, consider that Lil Miquela’s appearance – her design – was modeled off of nobody in particular. In fact, she is purposely intended to be ambiguous when it comes to determining her characteristics, such as race and age.
Before you react “OMG I can’t believe that people actually follow a fake character’s life,” realize that that’s exactly what we choose to do when we follow Influencers. Their lives aren’t really real.
You can argue Lil Miquela’s “life” is more authentic vs. most Influencers.
— Michael J. Miraflor (@michaelmiraflor) May 16, 2019
Now, consider what could occur if a computer-generated individual was modeled after a real person in society, particularly, a person with influence, such as a political figure or celebrity. They could be replicated as a highly realistic avatar and manipulated through media. Furthermore, by using additional artificial intelligence vocal reconstruction technologies, these individuals could be shown speaking words that they have never said.
The danger of this sort of propaganda generation is monumental. Fake news, photoshopped images, and falsified or manipulated statistics already dominate mainstream media. Soon, so will these computer-generated replicants of real people, unless proper measures are taken for prevention.
Devaluation of Real Identities
The final ethical dilemma is the inflation that will occur upon humanity. With so many seemingly “perfect” individuals, backed by an array of impressive accomplishments and a network of powerful and wealthy people, the value of real individuals will decline. This devaluation of real, human identities would occur on a qualitative and quantitative level.
Qualitative inflation refers to the notion that these computer-generated persons are often designed to be larger than life, in terms of their personality and background. Lil Miquela, for example, is not only a diversity advocate and women’s rights leader, but also a recording artist, supermodel, and brand ambassador, all at the “age” of 19.
One can see how, when so many individuals can produce an idealized version of a human being, it results in dangerous inflation of the traits that society views as desirable. It is almost inevitable that most real human identities will be unable to compete with the identities of fabricated characters.
Quantitative inflation, meanwhile, refers to the simple notion that if humanity is given a chance to produce hyper-realistic characters, there will be a numerical rise in the number of existing personas.
This is easy to prove because currently the number is restricted to whatever number of humans there happen to be in existence. If several humans possess the capacity to design and create individuals outside of themselves, the number of personalities is bound only to increase. This type of inflation, based on the increase in the quantity of persons, is especially dangerous when combined with the improvement in the status of these persons.
Such persons will deprive others of the sense that their actual accomplishments have meaning or value. Besides that, it will produce greater distrust among individuals about who they are and what they have experienced.
The imminent inflation of personhood in both a quantitative and qualitative regard will certainly be a difficult challenge to confront when society reaches that level of technological advancement. It would be far more logical and resource-efficient to confront this issue now, head-on.
Minimizing Unethical Consequences
There is no definitive way to address every dimension of ethical consequence posed by the development of Lil Miquela and her artificially constructed peers. Bias will be difficult to avoid, regardless of who designs them. Inflation of personalities is all but guaranteed. However, there are still specific measures to minimize the unethical consequences of this rapidly growing and fascinating technology.
For one, it is essential to restrict how many computer-generated individuals can be created. The government should not allow for the production of these characters based on real-life human beings. This technology could easily be used for the wrong reasons, and besides that, there are questions about the context in which these computer-generated images are to be arranged in. For example, it would certainly be immoral to design a child computer-generated character and place them in a sexual or pornographic image.
A crucial step in addressing these ethical issues directly will be for companies to collaborate with other professionals, such as philosophers, sociologists, and psychologists, to truly develop an understanding of the implications of computer-generated technology within the media industry. By utilizing an amalgamation of perspectives to confront ethical issues early on, society can avoid having to correct itself when the damage has already been done.
The next few years will be a telling time in humankind’s history for several reasons, but primarily because technology is evolving more rapidly than ever before, and contentious choices will have to be made.
Although Lil Miquela may seem like an insignificant profit project from a small, relatively unknown tech company, she represents much more than that: the minefield of difficult decisions that await global humanity as it progresses towards the future faster and faster.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.