Lensa AI portrait app raises ethical and privacy concerns

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« Magic avatars » are the latest Internet fad, but one expert says those involved in the trend may not be aware of the ethical and privacy issues it raises.

The release of Lensa’s « magic avatars » feature is a global success for the company. Recent advances in generative artificial intelligence allow the app to produce more impressive and diverse results than its predecessor. 

According to preliminary estimates provided by Sensor Tower, more than 4 million people worldwide downloaded the app in the first five days of December. During that same period, users spent more than $8 million on the app.

Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist at the University of Toronto, believes that the Lensa app, which creates portraits of people using artificial intelligence (AI), can have a negative effect on self-image, and raises other ethical questions.

With Lensa, users can upload 10 to 20 images of themselves to create « magical avatars, » which depict individuals in fantasy settings where they are supposed to appear more « enhanced » than their actual appearance.

« In some ways, it can be a lot of fun, but these idealized images are driven by social expectations that can be very cruel and very narrow, » Bowman told CTV’s Your Morning on Monday.

These representations are often unrealistic and do not always accurately reflect classic human characteristics. In some cases, darker-skinned people are depicted lighter, or those with larger bodies appear smaller.

In addition, these AI programs collect data from the Internet looking for different artistic styles to create these portraits. However, the original artistic styles and works created by real artists are rarely paid for the use of their work.

« What’s happening with emerging AI is that the laws haven’t really been able to keep up with that in terms of copyright. It’s very difficult and very murky and the ethics are even further behind the laws, » Bowman said.

The controversial method used by Lensa is called the stable distribution model, in which many artists do not have the option of accepting or rejecting their work being used.

In addition, users should seriously consider how the app stores their personal data and the potential use of their face.

According to the app’s privacy policy, photos are only stored in the app for 24 hours; however, it states that with each photo processed, the algorithm collects data from the photo for better future results.

Virtual photo editing applications have a questionable history, with some proving to be vectors for malware. In other cases, users are concerned about what happens to the photos they upload to these applications. These concerns were particularly evident around Russian-based AI company FaceApp, which later said it could store updated photos in the cloud for « performance and traffic reasons, » but that most images were deleted within 48 hours.

Therefore, users should be extra vigilant about their online activity and consider all the potential dangers involved. 

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