why did you do that? Why did I spend $8 for 50 abstract, impressionistic, and mind-bending portraits of myself? Am I that narcissistic? Are we all
Our Instagram and other social feeds are currently flooded with these various high-resolution interpretations of our faces. grooves, also known as Magic Avatars. They all come courtesy of Lensa, an AI image-generation engine that creates some pretty wild and often fantasy-driven interpretations of whatever images we feed.
There have been other similar platforms like Reface, which allows you to put your face inside famous movie clips. Everyone has been doing that for a while. I turned myself into Tom Cruise (Opens in a new tab).
The app was free (with a lot of ads, if I remember), and in the end we all decided that maybe it wasn’t a good idea to upload our photos to some Rando app developer.
Lensa fills that space but with a product that almost asks you to pay for it, first with a hard sell on an expensive subscription fee and then more casually with a pay-per-image AI offering.
What shocks me is just the sheer amount of people who pay to have their images ingested and then spit them out as amazing AI artwork. FOMO is so strong here that everyone (even this now-embarrassed reporter) gives up. My son spent about $15 on a bunch of photos for his girlfriend.
I’m not proud
why did you do that? Two reasons. I’m tired of seeing other people’s Lensa Magic Avatars on my feed, and I really need something new for Instagram. I’m kind of this way about my social feeds, and I always try to keep the tube full for reasons that are hard for me to explain here.
Adding my AI-powered photos to the growing legion of majestic Lensa-generated images for Instagram wasn’t difficult. The app is available for free on iOS and Android. It offers you a $49.99 subscription offer that you can “cancel anytime.” Personally, I hate apps like this, the ones that pester you with an incredibly cool feature but ask for exorbitant cash payments up front (I might be cheap too).
Like many other applications, the subview is a kind of interface. If you ignore that, the app immediately brings you to the pay-per-play section, where you can buy anywhere from 50 ($7.99) to 100 ($14.99) AI-generated Magic Avatars without signing up for anything.
Now, I can’t remember the last time I paid $8 for the privilege of using a single app feature, but that was the siren song for those beautiful photos. I justified the cost in my head, “Come on, you’re going to pay that much for two Krispy Kreme donuts and a water,” something I bought last week.
Then, the app asks you to upload between 10 and 20 photos of yourself in various poses and with a variety of expressions. I decided to look into the “Selfies” folder of my iPhone, where I found a bunch of suitable photos. I uploaded a batch, but Lensa rejected some of them as unusable (you didn’t say why), so I picked a few. In hindsight, I should have chosen far fewer snaps and selfies making silly faces. As with most AI photo systems, you get what you put into Lensa.
Overall, I’m happy with the results (you can see a few samples above) but I came away uncomfortable, feeling a bit like I’d been played. I should have asked a few questions, a lot in fact, before uploading my photos.
The day after Lensa handed me 50 4K AI photos (they remain on the app, but you can download your favorites in standard or 4K resolution), I sent Lensa developer Prisma Labs a list of questions:
- Do you store uploaded photos of yours? If so, is it encrypted?
- When did you run the Magic Avatar part?
- How exactly is artificial intelligence used to generate images?
- How many people have uploaded their photos?
- Why preload a subscription fee when people can pay $7.99 for 50 photos?
- How do you address concerns about people’s photos being uploaded without their permission?
- Have you heard of some being used to create adult content?
In some ways, you can take any — or all — of these questions and actually apply them to an AI-powered image creation system. While all of these AI systems are exciting, they also feel like black boxes. For some, we simply make scripts, but we still don’t understand how art is born.
For example, the heavy lifting behind Lensa’s magical avatars is done by the free, open source image generation platform Stable Diffusion – one of many that has been accused of appropriating the works of artists (Opens in a new tab) to train its AI model.
But that’s just one of my interests. What else happens to the pictures we willingly provide her with? How do we know, for example, that the images we upload are not used for further training of the AI? I don’t see any way to opt out of this possibility.
Nor are there any prompts warning that you should never upload someone’s photo without permission. I’ve heard reports that some people are using the system To generate porn images for unsuspecting people (Opens in a new tab) without their consent.
Where do our original photos go when Lensa is finished? Without the info that Lensa promises to delete, I have to assume they keep it all on file. We can only hope that it is at least encrypted.
Prisma Labs responds
I have some good news that although Prisma Labs doesn’t include much of what I consider necessary information in the app and didn’t answer my questions directly, it directed me to Mega FAQ (Opens in a new tab) It does not address some of these concerns.
On the question of what Lensa does with our images, Prisma Labs writes that they were deleted from Prisma Labs’ servers as soon as the processing was complete. However, the FAQ also contains this language:
“We store avatars for as long as it takes to provide the service to our users. Please note that a new feature allowing users to permanently delete their avatars from our servers is currently in the works.”
In other words, your original photos are gone, but those Lensa-created ones? It is still maintained by Prisma Labs. By the way, there is no mention of data encryption.
It’s not clear how Prisma Labs polices this particular rule, and even less helpfully, Prisma Labs adds this note, “Unfortunately, all these efforts have not made the AI completely safe from biased content and explicit images. Therefore, we stipulate that the product is not intended for use minors and warn users of potential content risks.”
I can’t legitimately tell you not to try the app, especially after I’ve come and done it. Before you do, make sure you’re comfortable with Prisma Lab’s answers (and lack of answers) to any of these questions.