For some people, AI portrait app Lensa is a cheap and fun way to see themselves as futuristic superheroes or a muse from the impressionist movement. But some artists say the trend is deeply worrying. 

First launched as a photo editing app in 2019, Lensa has recently gone viral after releasing its “magical avatars” feature. 

For a small fee, users can upload a minimum of 10 images of their face and the AI software will generate a variety of photorealistic portraits and illustrations.

Lensa uses an AI generator called Stable Diffusion which scrapes billions of images from the internet, including artwork from individuals, to ‘train’ the AI to do this. 

Taking humanity out of artwork

“I had a breakdown last week if I am honest,” artist Pepper Racoon says. 

“It is extremely harmful to artists but I don’t think many people are aware of that.”

Pepper Raccoon says AI apps like Lensa make her not want to post her art on the internet anymore. Photo: Supplied.

Pepper claims the artworks by individual artists are being harvested to train the AI without the artists' consent or knowledge. And that's why she has a problem with the app.

“It’s really demoralising for a lot of us who hustle really hard to make a living. It also takes humanity out of artwork. It's just hundreds of years of artists' work being smashed into a garbage disposal, basically.”

Pepper makes a living from selling original artwork, merch, and commission designs for commercial and private clients. 

Credit: @pepperraccoon

She says she isn’t so concerned about any potential loss of income for her business because her clients are wanting a personalised product. 

However, she feels for artists who do more inexpensive commissions for clients who may be threatened by AI-produced art. 

“Where I am really impacted is more on the emotional and psychological level where I feel like as a society, people are voting for defunding the arts and doing things that take income away from artists and make it easier for people to make cheap kind of trashy recreations of the hard work that artists have done.

“I find that really soul-crushing. And it makes me not want to put art on the internet because I'm worried that it's going to be harvested and used for AI engines without my permission.”

Developers of Lensa say it’s not theft

Re: News reached out to Lensa and Prisma Labs, the company that owns Lensa, but did not receive a response.

However, Prisma Labs CEO Andrey Usoltsev told BuzzFeed News the art Lensa generates “can never be described as exact replicas of any particular artwork.” 

He said the app creates images from scratch without borrowing existing pieces of art.

In a Twitter thread, Prisma Labs went on to say: “The AI learns to recognise the connections between the images and their descriptions, not the artworks. This way the model develops operational principles that can be applied to content generation. Hence the outputs can't be described as exact replicas of any particular artwork.

“As cinema didn't kill theatre and accounting software hasn't eradicated the profession, AI won't replace artists but can become a great assisting tool.”

In response to the controversy of Lensa, a group of artists has released a website called “Have I been trained?” that allows other artists to see if their artwork has been used to train AI.

AI art ‘needs more transparency’

Illustrator Sara Moana says she is worried about her own business after seeing how oddly specific the styles of art on Lensa were.

Illustrator Sara Moana says AI art isn’t the issue, it’s the process’s lack of transparency and consent that is. Photo: Supplied. 

“My art style is completely digital and very distinctive so if one day there’s an art style exactly like mine, my practice completely falls apart.”

Credit: @Saramoana.

As a digital illustrator, Sara is interested in how she could work with AI to develop her craft but says copyright laws need to protect artists.

“I think if developers were actively collaborating with artists and money was going back to the artists, that kind of arrangement would be really interesting to look into. But obviously right now, artists are not protected at all and it sounds like no one is getting asked for permission or compensated either. 

“I think the main thing is just transparency and understanding that at this stage of AI, there needs to be ethics and laws in place to protect artists,” she says.

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