The rise of computer-generated, artificially intelligent influencers

Virtual humans are gaining popularity on social media, with some amassing millions of young followers. But what psychological impact are they having?

Technology 8 June 2022

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Serah Reikka, left, and Shudu, right, are virtual influencers and models

L: Serah Reikka R: Cameron-James

SERAH REIKKA is an award-winning actor with more than 79,000 Instagram followers. She says she loves French food, cats and dressing up as fictional characters. She has purple hair. “I try to experiment with other styles,” she tell me, “sometimes with success, sometimes not really.” Then, after a brief pause, she seems to be considering something deep. “I think I am a potato.”

Serah isn’t a potato. Nor is she a human. She is a semi-autonomous artificial intelligence. A purely online presence with a changing personality and appearance, all governed by a set of algorithms. Since 2014, she has been part of a growing community of social media personalities who don’t exist in the flesh. Their content isn’t so different to that of human influencers – holiday snaps, a new outfit or two, a lot of selfies. The main difference is that all of it is computer generated.

There are just over 150 virtual influencers online, and they are gaining popularity. Some have even surpassed the million-follower milestone. Lu do Magalu, who started out as a virtual sales associate for a Brazilian magazine, now tops the industry with over 55 million followers across social media.

All the while, their appearances are becoming more customisable and realistic with every technological stride. Some think they could be a force for good, fighting loneliness and isolation. On the other hand, virtual influencers might just be “yet another way people can be made to feel inadequate”, says Peter Bentley at University College …

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