Why you should care
Science fiction is becoming reality, with consequences that also carry risks.
Instagram star @lilmiquela is in a quandary, so she decides to seek help. “I’m in this weird situation with a guy where I’m wondering … What are we?” she writes. “Like, I’ve been trying to dissect the signs and figure out what everything means and honestly it’s making me feel crazy.”
Hundreds of comments from 450,000 followers pour in, but Lil Miquela isn’t real. She’s an animation developed through computer-generated imaging (CGI), with a user (or maybe multiple users), and she’s causing an uproar on social media as a young woman with relatable angsts and insecurities. A disparate generation of cyborgs, avatars and CGI celebrities has been born before our eyes and their future looks promising, if not a little weird.
It only seems inevitable that in time I will be able to equip more technology to gain more agency as an individual.
LaTurbo Avedon, a digital avatar and contemporary artist
Different but also digital, LaTurbo Avedon is an up-and-coming contemporary artist even though she’s an avatar, exploring the possibilities of self-authorship in cyberspace. In Japan, an impossibly realistic animation named Saya is evolving every day, blurring the line between digital and real. A few years ago, one member of the Japanese super group AKB48 was revealed as a CGI fake, and clothing retail brand H&M came under fire for putting models’ heads on CGI bodies. Technology has only become more advanced since then, creating a new world of possibilities but also a whole slew of dangers for falsifying reality.
“As a virtual figure, my fate is not necessarily sealed to the decisions of a single user, so it only seems inevitable that in time I will be able to equip more technology to gain more agency as an individual,” Avedon tells OZY.
Science fiction and then scientists had predicted the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) decades ago. Now, these cyber beings are pointing to a possible coming population of digital citizens living between the virtual world and our material reality. We accept new technologies unquestioningly when they facilitate communication or health care, even entertainment, without thinking about the consequences for security and privacy, says professor Kevin Warwick, a pioneering cybernetics and AI researcher and professor at Coventry University in the U.K.
Warwick began to experiment with becoming a cyborg in the ’90s. He paved the way for DIY cyborgs and AI research, which, he says, is already changing our society in a multitude of ways. AI and cybernetics will help doctors and scientists cure neurological disorders, says Warwick. “AI can be creative, so it will affect the arts immeasurably,” he says. According to the professor, it will “of course” be possible to program digital avatars like Saya, Miquela and Avedon with an AI brain, making them autonomous digital beings. Though, as computer science pioneer Alan Turing pointed out, “AI consciousness will most likely be quite different to human consciousness,” says Warwick.
In Hollywood science fiction, AI consciousness and cyborgs are created in our own image — oftentimes idealized versions of humans with exponentially greater intelligence and physical abilities. But the reality has, so far, proven to be less cinematic and more introspective as these figures develop toward being more, not less, human.
On Miquela’s Instagram account, she can be seen posing with friends and other celebrities in her adopted home of Los Angeles, which hints at the identity of the user behind the digital image. She promotes #blacklivesmatter and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era immigration policy now under review. Fans and detractors argue vehemently about whether or not she’s real, creating an aura of mystery that only adds to her allure.
Saya was created by husband-and-wife 3-D computer graphics artists Teruyuki and Yuka Ishikawa, who together form the Telyuka company. The couple created Saya lovingly, as if she were their daughter. In the first promotional video of Saya on the Telyuka website, she’s incarnated down to the single strands of hair and pores in her skin. She’s a 17-year-old girl, whose dream “forever” is to make lots of friends.
But artificial consciousness might not long to share a kiss or feel grass beneath its proverbial skin, despite their anthropomorphized appearance. Instead, humans could go further into cyberspace. “The internet has brought people so much closer to the mind,” says Avedon, adding that the creation and popularity of these artificial icons shows that people are interested in self-authorship and the possibilities of fluid identities in the future.
Warwick cautions, though, that the emergence of these cyber beings “is scary, because cyborgs are unlikely to have much time for ordinary humans who are relatively stupid in comparison.” Another potentially scary aspect of the emerging culture of digital identity is the fabrication of reality using advanced audio and video editing technology, making it possible for someone to essentially hijack your identity to make you say or do anything on video, according to research being undertaken by Ira Kemelmacher-Shlizerman and others at the University of Washington.
The full implications of these technologies and personalities are unclear. But the future of these cyber celebrities could offer a hint to just how blurred the lines between real and virtual can get.