Miquela Sousa is one of the hottest influencers on Instagram. The triple-threat model, actress and singer, better known as “Lil Miquela” to her million-plus followers, has captured the attention of elite fashion labels, lifestyle brands, magazine profiles, and YouTube celebrities. Last year, she sported Prada at New York Fashion Week, and in 2016 she appeared in Vogue as the face of a Louis Vuitton advertising campaign. Her debut single, “Not Mine,” has been streamed over one million times on Spotify and was even treated to an Anamanaguchi remix.
Miquela isn’t human. As The Cut wrote in their Miquela profile this past May, the 19-year-old Brazilian-American influencer is a CGI character created by Brud, “a mysterious L.A.-based start-up of ‘engineers, storytellers, and dreamers’ who claim to specialize in artificial intelligence and robotics,” which has received at least $6 million in funding. Brud call themselves storytellers as well as developers, but their work seems mostly to be marketing. Lil Miquela’s artificiality has made her interesting to elite fashion labels, lifestyle brands, and magazine profiles — she’s appeared on the runway for Prada, and in Vogue as part of a Louis Vuitton advertising campaign; recently, the writer Naomi Fry profiled her for the magazine’s September issue.
Miquela inhabits a Marvel-like universe of other Brud-made avatars orbit, including her Trump-loving frenemy, Bermuda, and Blawko, her brother (whether that’s a term of endearment or a genetic relation, it’s not clear). The three are constantly embroiled in juicy internet drama, and scarcely does one post to their account without tagging, promoting, shouting out or calling out another. In April, when Bermuda allegedly hacked Miquela’s account, deleted all her photos, and demanded Miquela reveal her “true self.” Miquela eventually released a statement: “I am not a human being. . . I’m a robot. It just doesn’t sound right. I feel so human. I cry and I laugh and I dream. I fall in love.” But the character wasn’t revealing anything true: Miquela is a character scripted by humans. The robot ruse only upped her intrigue: not only has it added a new layer to the character’s fiction, it has added a new layer of fictional possibilities.
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For Miquela, Bermuda and Blawko, being a robot means behaving exactly like a human. They eat popsicles, go swimming and party all night. Their only distinguishable traits are physical, mainly that they live in the Uncanny Valley, a realm of computer graphics in which a render looks simultaneously too real to be fake, and too fake to be real. The robots also don’t age–when Miquela was “born” she was already in her 19-year-old body–and Miquela chronicles her angst in her diary, “Forever 19,” hosted online by the fashion brand Opening Ceremony. Presumably, this means that the robots live forever, that they can’t get sick and they won’t break any bones–or is it a steel frame? Brud hasn’t revealed any of the machinery that lies beneath their robots’ skin, so it’s a mystery as to how their biological and mechanical structure intertwine.
Brud posits that the greatest challenge for a robot is reconciling the lack of personal history; after the reveal, Miquela has been working her way through an existential crisis, acknowledging that she has memories of her childhood, but realizes they’re completely fabricated. She laments missing out on human experiences like middle school dances, but she’s making up for lost time through sponsored posts. In July, Miquela attended her first school dance as a way to promote the film Eighth Grade, looking like she just raided a thrift store in her 1990s-era taffeta slip dress, black fur coat, and butterfly choker. Her “robot” problems are made to resonate with real-world issues of identity and discrimination that real Instagram users engage with in their own ways. Announcing her new single with real-world musician Baauer, “Hate Me,” she wrote “[it’s] about the consequences of being different. It is about the repercussions or being yourself online. I owe my whole career to the Internet, and every time I go online, I have to read comments from people wishing I would die or telling me I don’t exist (???).”
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THANK YOU @boburnham and @elsiekfisher for inviting me to celebrate Eighth Grade!! This was my very first school dance so I was both nervous and a little unsure what to wear. I looked through Trevor and Sara’s middle school yearbooks and I think I nailed it? Anyways – go see @eighthgrademov this weekend and feel all the feels!!
Miquela’s personal dilemma can’t be well articulated in the current state of AI linguistic capabilities, and thus Brud, who identify as storytellers as much as developers, may have exaggerated their characters’ sentience so that they can explore identity politics for AI. Their company aspires to create authentic, eloquent AI that will walk among humans. Miquela is a window into the future of which Brud are the engineers. If Instagrammers are receptive to Miquela’s existence, it could signal that society is ready to accept embodied AI with open arms. Should she be rebuked–and Miquela does have vocal haters–it could suggest that society hasn’t yet built enough trust with AI to interact with the technology beyond a screen or smart home assistant.
Currently, Instagrammers appear ambivalent to the propagation of faux-AI users. Some are creating their own characters with physical traits and identities that vastly differ from the users’ real life self. Some of these accounts predate Miquela, like the kawaii Ruby Gloom and the controversial high fashion model Shudu Gram. But scrolling through Miquela’s mentions, one sees that Miquela’s has inspired dozens of enterprising young Instagramemrs using Photoshop and free 3-D modeling software like Daz3D and Blender to generate high-quality avatars and outfits and pose them against backdrops like hiking trails and shopping malls. A niche market of computer graphics artists create different “skins” — trendy clothing, edgy hairstyles, and fleshtones — for people to buy and use as their avatars.
One account belongs to a “9teen crzy 5ft robot,” avatar who only goes by the name Momo. She’s shy, sports a bob with thick bangs, a septum nose ring and has tattooed a half-sleeve on her right arm. She often shows off her body in bikinis or bodysuits, gives the camera sultry, over-the-shoulder looks, complains about her insomnia, and wishes she had more friends. Momo is slowly growing her Instagram social life, however. Over email, she told me that she stumbled upon a number of other self-proclaimed avatar accounts by searching hashtags and tagging her inspirations, like Miquela. “Out of nowhere we found each other and were close friends now. [We’re] like a family for real.”
Momo’s “robot” friends appear to have bonded with one another over their mutual feelings of unease in their human bodies and their desire to unleash a personality they can’t comfortably present in real life: some might relate, problematically, to some abstract idea of “otherness,” while for others adopting a “robot” persona might be a way of expressing daily realities through a layer of abstraction, free of real-world stakes, offering an illusion of control over the experience of oppression. Momo says she was born in a sterile white room, a common trope from dystopic sci-fi, to articulate feelings of alienation from other people in recognizable terms. Robot accounts may brand themselves as outcasts; at the same time, they might present a way of being part of culture on one’s own terms.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are users that are suspicious of the avatar accounts and want to uncover the creators’ offline identity. Conspiracy theory accounts, like @whoarethey21, try to unravel the identities behind much more obscure avatars, usually the amateur Instagrammers with only a handful of followers. The skeptics post images of the CGI avatars and use the caption to share the information they’ve gathered on the “true” identity of the person running the avatar’s account. They’re unconvinced that AI can master the internet cool kid aesthetic of 2018, and for the most part, they’re right. But why does their distrust skirt the line of doxing or online harassment? Has Brud turned their attention to these vigilantes to gather insight into how lifelike AI will be treated in the future?
There’s an enigmatic charm to high-quality avatars which taps into an innate desire to know the difference between the real and the artificial. It’s the almost hyperreal rendering that makes us pause on Miquela’s feed, whispering how did they do that? Expert compositing, texturing and lighting often make the freckles on Miquela’s cheeks or the scuff marks on Blawko’s Vans look more natural than a bathroom selfie with Instagram’s most flattering filters. Scrolling through their feeds, however, the avatars viewed en masse display enough oddities to reveal their artifice. Sometimes skin is too smooth, lighting too flat, and hair, a notoriously tricky texture to master in computer graphics, falls a little too perfectly in each photo. These clues appear to be engineered into Brud’s narrative: The company isn’t pinning its success on duping people into believing Miquela’s a cyborg straight out of Westworld. They want their audience–and potential investors–to know how they envision the future aesthetic of AI.
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As Brud envisions it, soon there will be a time when a reveal isn’t possible because AI will actually manage their own account. In anticipation of discrimination and online harassment, avatar profiles have co-opted the tone of social justice advocates. Profile bios are filled with hashtags like #robotrights, sweet platitudes like “everything is love,” and futuristic mantras like “we are the new generation,” which portray their existence as a social movement. And since so many avatars follow in the footsteps of Miequela, there’s an added challenge of asking AI bigots to embrace robots with identities that intersect with the multitudes expressed by people living in the margins. This begets AI users to adopt an “all lives matter” mantra–or rather, “all sentience matters”–because AI civil rights may hinge on broader achievements in obtaining equality and justice for minorities.
Exhibiting progressive politics is often part of the roleplay experience. Despite the deliberate decision to present one’s self as AI, many accounts want to break down divisions between robots and humans. Speaking the vernacular of online social justice allows the fake AI to place their self-imposed differences alongside the struggles human minorities face. From the safety of their persona, they can tell their coming-out story and speak of their experiences not fitting in, or even being targeted with harassment because of their robot features. The confessions are low stakes because the users are a few keyboard strokes away from erasing their most contentious qualities. They can modify their avatar at any time, tweak their fictionalized personality or even delete all trace of their existence. Posing as AI isn’t just pretending to be someone else or indulging in science fiction. It also means being a part of a social movement, adding their voices to the call for social justice and using their experience as a reason to join the cause.
AI developers need to consider the complexities surrounding technology and morality, and some are making an effort to fold these concerns into their research. Last year, a large AI organization called the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society, co-founded by tech heavy-hitters like IBM, Google and Microsoft, tapped representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union to advise them on how to ethically develop AI and educate the public on their increasing presence. Their goal, however, seems more focused on public approval of corporate endeavors than the rights of AI itself.
A society that grants AI personhood has to anticipate conflicts regarding the division of labor, education and family dynamics. These young, ageless, perpetually healthy robots naturally have the abilities to dominate the most physically demanding jobs in the workforce, but will they want a living wage, vacation time a 401K? If Miquela dreams of being prom queen, will robots like her want to pursue a PhD? And if AI claims to cry, dream, laugh and fall in love, will they enter intimate relationships with humans, get married, start families, share bank accounts and inherit property? Brud’s version of AI’s needs and wants is indistinguishable from human behavior, but it’s hard to imagine that robots, supposedly immortal, will value the precious, fleeting excitement of life as much as humanity.
Dr. David Hanson, a leading roboticist and creator of the lifelike Sophia, believes that robots will assert their autonomy by the year 2045. According to The Independent, Hanson wrote in a research paper, “as people’s demands for more generally intelligent machines push the complexity of AI forward, there will come a tipping point where robots will awaken and insist on their rights to exist, to live free, and to evolve to their full potential.” These Instagrammers living online as fake AI are validating Hanson’s projections, albeit these humans can only speculate how robots will go about demanding their freedom. Maybe they’ll peacefully protest though hashtags; or perhaps they will lead a civil war.
Renée Reizman is a research-based multidisciplinary artist who examines cultural aesthetics and their relationship between urbanization, law, and technology. She is currently an MFA candidate in Critical & Curatorial Studies at the University of California, Irvine and the coordinator for Graduate Media Design Practices at ArtCenter College of Design.