AI’s Best Trick Yet Is Showering Us With Attention

One thing about inhabiting a face is that we can never quite see it the way others do. Mirrors give us a reversed image. Photographs freeze us in time at odd angles and, sometimes, in pitiless detail. Staring into a phone camera, preening to check our makeup or undereye circles, gives us a hyperreal mirror, but this, too, is distorted and reversed. Even video doesn’t quite capture us for ourselves, for the simple reason that we cannot watch ourselves objectively. We are looking too closely; maybe we are critical, or maybe we are grateful that we turned out to look a certain way. We cannot simply take stock of how we might look to someone else.

This is part of the appeal of portraiture. It is not the objective reality of who we are but a version of how someone else sees us, translated onto the page or the canvas. It always astounds and moves me to think, while in art museums, that before photography, the only simple way to see a static image of yourself was through the brush or the pen or the chisel, necessarily filtered through another person’s creative intelligence. Standing in front of John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Gretchen Osgood Warren and her daughter, we see not just what they might have looked like but the specific things Sargent saw: the high pink of Warren’s cheeks, the dreaminess of her daughter’s expression, the silvery pink of her dress, the candles behind them fading in paint strokes into the background. The way her shawl trails off to the floor, gray and vague, is something only Sargent might have seen and painted.

Cameras have gradually made it unexceptional to see images of ourselves, but there is still something magical about having another person pay this kind of sustained creative attention to you. This is part of why people pay for boardwalk caricatures and commission portraits of themselves in oils. There is real delight in seeing how someone else sees us, experiencing a strange, maybe tenuous connection with their artistic vision. Or, perhaps, with their attention: A portrait, after all, is the fruit of intense aesthetic focus, and what could be more flattering than having that focus fixed on yourself?

Lensa borrows, in an impoverished way, from that appeal. But of course these images are not how another person sees us. They are the naked eye of an inhuman intelligence, combining features mathematically, lips and nose and eyes added up into an approximation of you. There is not, I think, real potential for beauty here — not because the images are produced algorithmically (I believe it is possible for computers to create compelling artwork), but because the avatars seem to me to satisfy neither realism nor artistry. They live between the two and are mostly good for evaluating, once again, versions of how we might look. Their style mimics fantasy characters, comic books and heroes, imagining you into a flattering spotlight — but even in this they fail to elevate you specifically, instead sliding your image into generic visual tropes. You could be anyone, and in fact, you are!

The fundamental appeal of apps like this is, of course, to our own self-involvement. Much has already been said about the way the internet fuels self-obsession by pushing us to perform for others: On Facebook, people announce banal life developments and political opinions; on Instagram, we interrupt our fun to show others how much fun we’re having; on Twitter, we mine our personal lives for laughs. But there is also something to be said about how digital tools can function like fun-house mirrors, feeding a wholly private fascination with ourselves. I can’t help staring at Lensa’s hundred semireal versions of my face. (Actually, 110: There was a bonus of 10 “Holiday Spirit” styles, including one in which I stared down moodily while wearing a Santa hat.) I didn’t share these avatars with others. Even those who did post theirs shared only a fraction of what was produced. These images seemed intended to be marveled at in private. They are like the lists people post of the year’s best moments, or recollections of dreams — things that, even when shared with others, are always more interesting to ourselves.

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