In 1999, the popular animated TV show Arthur aired an episode in which its title character discovers that the band he and his friends had gotten tickets to was actually a holographic projection. Two decades later, robots and virtual influencers are not only a reality, but they have become popular.
One example of this phenomenon is Sophia the robot. “She” was first switched on in 2016 and has developed a celebrity status, even being given Saudi Arabian citizenship in 2017. This would make it the first instance of a robot being given legal acknowledgement of personhood anywhere in the world, bestowing the same privileges humans enjoy. Sophia has also made appearances on popular talk shows like the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Her presence has been used for marketing products and tourism industries in other countries since her recognition of personhood. In fact, she has even addressed the United Nations, saying, “I am here to help humanity create the future.”
Sophia is a quite bold and controversial advancement in our society. Many scientists have argued that granting robots humanity will have social and political consequences unbeknownst to us. What happens if Sophia the robot is hacked or kidnapped? Does she have the same human rights as other citizens? Will she be subject to the human rights convention and other agreements for human safety? Or will she simply be discarded? But wouldn’t that complicate what it means to be a citizen at all? Are you a citizen because you bring profit or name to a particular country or consider it a home? Such questions and potential problems complicate our understanding of what constitutes a citizen and whether our existence in our countries is purely functional rather than something more intrinsic.
Now, being a human is not a requirement to be an influencer—the abundance of animal celebrities attests to that. The most famous examples of virtual influencers are Lil Miquela and Imma. Lil Miquela, a CGI Instagram influencer with 2.8 million followers, has joined ad campaigns with high profile supermodels like Bella Hadid for Calvin Klein and closed multimillion-dollar brand partnerships. Imma is a Japanese AI model that has appeared on magazine covers and makes as much money as real human influencers on social media. These hyper-realistic characters have become the future for marketing and commerce. High profile brands like Samsung, Calvin Klein, Balmain and many others have begun to compete in this race to hire virtual influencers. These same virtual influencers have also supported and championed social movements such as Black Lives Matter, reproductive rights, and LGBTQ+ rights.
What is so problematic about these influencers then? For starters, these are physically “perfect” women that are now standing in for and representing women who are already pressured to be perfect and accommodate a certain aesthetic. According to Vox, Lil Miquela is described to be “made by a computer to look as much like a hot and charming human being as possible without scaring people.” With the rise of the social media authenticity movement, where human influencers are encouraging body positivity and non-edited photos, this virtual movement is the complete opposite of that.
It even goes to the extreme that the actual supermodels that we have today, who already are the symbols of unattainable levels of beauty, are also incapable of reaching the standards of perfection set out by these virtual models. These virtual models also take away opportunities from human models and strip away confidence from aspiring women because they are deemed less than.
These female robots and CGI influencers also quite literally add to the objectification of women. The branded partnerships with virtual influencers like Imma and Lil Miquela involve brands “buying” them for the duration of the deal, with conditions. This materialization of influential female figures is problematic because it blurs the lines of what is real and warps our expectations. Virtual influencers are diverse and occupy a vast spectrum of representative figures in race, gender, and sexuality. Many people cannot tell if they are real or not and believe that they are expected to look like them in order to be considered beautiful, just like they have been with real-life figures.
The way these virtual influencers interact with each other, with their followers, and with brands like any other human being with feelings calls into question the value and sacredness of humanity. It might seem like a far-off question for the time being, but technology advances much faster than humans can adapt. The law evolves even slower. With the legal recognition of robots and virtual creators as people with financial and property rights, there are serious implications about what it means to be a human with those same rights and liberties.