Why did I do it? Why did I pay €8 for 50 mind-blowing, impressionistic, abstract portraits of myself? Am I that narcissistic? We are all?

Our Instagram and other social feeds are currently inundated with these high resolution renderings of our faces and various obscene aka magical avatars. They all come courtesy of the Lensa app, an AI image generation engine that creates wild and often whimsical renderings of any image we feed.

There are other similar platforms, such as Reface, that allow you to put your face in famous movie clips. Everybody did it for a while. I became Tom Cruise (opens in a new tab).

The app was free (with lots of ads if I remember correctly) and eventually we all decided that maybe it wasn't a good idea to upload our images to a rando app developer.

Lensa fills that space, but with a product that almost demands you pay for it, first with a strong sale of expensive subscription fees, then more informally with an offer of paid AI image packs.

What amazes me is how many people are paying to have their images digested and then spit out as amazing AI works of art. FOMO is so strong here that everyone (even this now embarrassed reporter) succumbs. My adult son spent almost €15 on a set of pictures of his girlfriend.

i'm not proud

Why did I do it? Two reasons. I was tired of seeing other people's Lensa Magic Avatars on my feed and also needed something new for Instagram. I'm a bit like that with my social feeds, always trying to keep the pipe full for reasons I can hardly explain here.

Adding my AI images to Instagram's growing legion of majestic Lensa-generated portraits wasn't difficult. The app is available for free on iOS and Android. Opening it presents you with a subscription offer of €49.99 that you can “cancel at any time”. I personally hate apps like this, the ones that tease you with an incredibly cool feature but demand exorbitant cash payments up front (I can be cheap too).

Like many other apps, the suboffer is a kind of front. If you ignore it, the app immediately places you in the pay-per-play section, where you can buy between 50 (€7.99) and 100 (€14.99) AI-generated magical Avatars without subscribing to anything.

Now, I can't remember the last time I paid €8 for the privilege of using a single feature of the app, but that was the siren song of these beautiful portraits. I rationalized the cost in my head, "Come on, you'd pay that for two Krispy Kreme donuts and a water," which I bought last week.

I paid for them, so I have to use them, right? (Image credit: Future)

After that, the app asks you to upload 10-20 images of yourself in various poses and with a variety of expressions. I decided to look in the "Selfies" folder on my iPhone, where I found a bunch of suitable photos. I downloaded a bunch, but Lensa rejected some as unusable (didn't say why), so I selected a few more. In hindsight, I should have chosen a lot fewer profile pictures and pictures of me making goofy faces. As with most AI imaging systems, you get what you put into Lensa.

Overall, I'm happy with the results (you can see some examples above), but I ended up feeling uncomfortable, feeling a bit like I've been played. I should have asked a few questions, many in fact, before uploading my photos.

A day after Lensa delivered 50 of my AI 4K images (they stay in 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 the photos that are uploaded to you? If so, are they encrypted?
  • When did you release the Magic Avatar game?
  • How, exactly, is the AI ​​used to generate the images?
  • How many people uploaded your images?
  • Why do you pre-charge subscription fees when people can only pay €7.99 for 50 images?
  • How do you address concerns about people uploading images without their permission?
  • Have you heard of some that are used to generate adult content?

In a way, you can take any or all of these questions and practically apply them to an AI imaging system. While all of these AI systems are exciting, they seem like black boxes. For some we only put text prompts, but we still don't understand how they generate art.

Most of the work behind Lensa's Magic Avatars, for example, is done by the free and open-source imaging platform Stable Diffusion, one of many that has been accused of appropriating artists' work (opens in a new tab) to train your simulated AI.

But that's just one of my concerns. Another is what happens to the images that we so voluntarily provide? How do we know, for example, that the images we upload are not used to further train the AI? I see no way to exclude this possibility.

There are also no notices warning you not to download someone's image without permission. I've heard reports that some people are using the system to generate pornographic images of unsuspecting people (opens in a new tab) without their consent.

Where do our original images go when Lensa's work is complete? With no information promising Lensa will remove them, I'd have to assume they keep them all on file. We can only hope that they are at least encrypted.

Prisma Labs responds

I have good news. Although Prisma Labs does not include much of what I consider to be necessary information in their app and did not answer my questions directly, they did direct me to an extensive FAQ (opens in a new tab) that addresses some of these concerns.

On the question of what Lensa does with our images, Prisma Labs writes that they are removed from Prisma Labs' servers once processing is complete. However, the FAQ also contains this language:

“We store avatars for as long as it is necessary to provide the service to our users. Please note that a new feature, which would allow users to permanently remove their avatars from our servers, is currently in progress."

In other words, your original photos are gone, but those Lensa-created images? Prisma Labs still has them. By the way, there is no mention of data encryption.

The FAQ does not address image ownership considerations: the image you upload must be yours or one to which you have the right to access. It's about "sexualized" images, but mostly about the AI's tendency to sexualize female characters. More importantly, Prisma Labs adds: "Our Terms of Service absolutely prohibits the intentional use of the app to create explicit content and obliges Lensa users to comply with this requirement."

It's unclear how Prisma Labs enforces this particular rule and, even less helpful, Prisma Labs adds this note: "Unfortunately, all of these efforts have yet to make AI absolutely immune to biased content and explicit images. Therefore, we stipulate that the product is not intended for use by minors and warn users of the potential risks of the content.

I can't legitimately tell you not to try the app, especially after you've done it. However, before doing so, make sure you are comfortable with Prisma Lab's answers (and lack of answers) to any of these questions.

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