Live your best life… as a digital avatar?

“Be the best version of yourself” is something we are often told. But what if the best version of yourself is digital? Digital avatars depicting both real and imaginary people are popping up everywhere, and they are completely changing life as we previously knew it.

Do you remember those old fortune teller machines at amusement parks where you could insert a coin and an animatronic oracle would reveal your future? Well, I recently experienced the digital age version, and it was on a whole other surreal level. I stepped up to the platform and stood before a “meta-human”, who scanned my hand and face using mid-air haptics. It proceeded to read my fortune, as well as create my very own meta-human NFT that will supposedly live out my future in the metaverse.

My meta-human avatar, created by technology from SoftServe.

This immersive experience delivered by SoftServe during Web Summit 2022 is just one example of how advanced artificial intelligence (AI) is being used in the form of digital avatars today. There are many more commonplace ways this type of technology has been seeping into our everyday lives, like deepfakes and face filters. The more sophisticated these tools become, the more believable the outcome. Soon, we could all be being catfished on a daily basis.

Drop the mask: it is time to be real

The increase of intentionally fictitious content has greatly increased in every area of society over the years, from fake news and greenwashing to the heavily filtered, “upgraded” versions of people on social media. Many audiences are getting fed up with all the lies and express a desire for authenticity as a result. Transparency is one of today’s most used buzzwords, for good reason — people are demanding more honesty and ownership from the businesses they work with, as well as the people they follow on social media. 

Social media app BeReal is the epitome of this trend — and the title says it all. Only allowing users to post one in-the-moment, unedited photo per day, at a specific time randomly decided by the app, BeReal implores people to show their real selves. We can also see this honesty trend across other social media channels: small business owners and influencers are posting videos of themselves talking openly about their day-to-day lives, habits, and challenges. No longer only showing the good bits, they show the slog and reality behind their success, and their followers love them for it. 

Another popular trend, “instagram vs reality” — often with a person looking beautiful and flawless in one photo, followed by another photo with all their normal, mortal imperfections — shows the truth of how good lighting, a flattering posture and filters can completely transform how they look. Many social profiles have gained popularity from expressing this honesty: people are craving the realness behind the masked perfection.

Be who you want to be in the metaverse

However in stark contrast to the cohort that desires something more genuine, there has been a dramatic rise in volume and popularity of virtual influencers. Some are AI automated, whereas others have a real human behind the scenes, pulling their strings, living through them and straddling both the physical and digital worlds. Christopher Travers, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Virtual Humans, says that in setting up the site to support the virtual influencer industry, he was motivated by the desire to be able to express one’s true self using an anonymous pseudonym, in the form of a digital human.

For those who are not satisfied with themselves as they are, being able to be whoever they want in the digital sphere is liberating. Where we used to see physical tools like make-up and botox being used by people who strive for a more desirable version of themselves, many now turn to digital tools like filters or full on avatars to achieve that.

Virtual influencer, Deanne Ritter.

The real person behind virtual influencer Deanne Ritter (pictured above), for example, is a married man who has a wife and family, but was never able to be his true self in the real world. Ritter’s creator says he was beaten by his parents as a teenager when they discovered him crossdressing, and that he always had to bury his true identity. Now in the digital world, he adopts a female persona, saying: “I’m not trying to present myself as anything other than an expression of my feminine self”. We cannot know for sure if this particular story is true, but there is no doubt that similar stories are true for many people across the world who are not accepted as themselves in the community they are living in. 

At the same time, we see completely fictional influencers like Lil Miquela on the scene, who somehow has 2.9 million Instagram followers, as well as a real human boyfriend to boot (no joke). It seems bizarre when you think about it. Why would anyone care about what a non-existent computer-generated character does? Although people have always enjoyed consuming content and stories about fictional characters, there was previously always a degree of separation. The characters lived in books, in movies, or on stage. They never existed alongside us in our universe, imitating real humans as closely as some of these digital avatars are now doing. 

Virtual influencer Lil Miquela.

The line between real and fake is blurring

The infiltration of these digital avatars into our lives makes us ponder how we will distinguish reality from fiction moving forward. For all of us consuming the content, it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell what is real from what is not, especially when it comes to the more lifelike digital avatars. Reading through the comments on Ritter’s posts for example, it is clear that a lot of people believe her to be a real person, and respond to her as they would any fully human public figure.

The ambiguous content does not stop there. Designboom recently shared a collection of “photographs” of old, imaginary shamans. Only you wouldn’t know they were imaginary unless you read the caption. Even though it is clearly stated in the caption that these portraits are of non-existent people created by the AI-platform Midjourney, many people believed them to be real photos. These people shared congratulatory comments, celebrating the oldest people and civilizations in our society, all the while thinking they were responding to something 100% genuine. What is most scary is had there not been a disclaimer that these photos are fake, few of us would be able to tell the difference. 

Consider how much this can warp people’s understanding of a culture when presented with a realistic avatar alongside a made-up background story to accompany it. Fake news and misinformation is something we already have to deal with, and the consequences of how this affects our views and behaviours towards each other — sometimes to dangerous extremes — frequents the news and media.

‘Imaginary Shamans’ created by Dimitar Karanikolov using Midjourney.

What do the cards hold for the future of society?

While some of us might be craving more truth and realness, there is nothing to slow down society hurtling towards an ever-more fabricated virtual world. And the people that own the technology hold the power. 

Over 150 brands have already sponsored virtual influencers or created their own, largely because it is much less risky than using a human influencer as they have full control over the messaging and there will never be any human mishaps. An average of 70% of people in the US between the ages of 18-44 follow at least one virtual influencer, and they are clearly responding positively to the marketing, even when the subject is not real: 55% of people who follow virtual influencers have made purchases based on their recommendations. 

When so many people aspire to look and live like the people they follow on social media channels — sometimes to an unhealthy, obsessive level resulting in issues like increasing rates of body dysmorphia — what impact could it have on us when we are consuming content from AI avatars with no mortal constraints? Will it perpetuate the dissatisfaction some people have with themselves further?

Another question of ethics is also raised. We have already seen how things like deepfakes have been misused in politics and porn. The UK government has only just announced that it will soon be illegal to share non-consensual deepfake porn, several years after this content has been plaguing the internet. Technology continues to develop faster than governments can create the appropriate legislation for them. To this day, there is nothing definitive that says who owns the rights to AI-generated content. With AI-automated virtual personas now generating their own content, it brings another dimension to the equation about what rights they should or will have. Travers says, “I want to build a future where virtual beings are respected as equals to celebrities and influencers”.

Just how much our society will be changed by these emerging technologies is unclear. What is certain is that this is just the advent of the physical and virtual worlds colliding, and the rewriting of the definition of the concept of reality.

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