Perils of the AI reign

Zara Shatavari will represent India in the world’s first AI beauty pageant, organised by the social media platform Fanvue.
Zara Shatavari and her fellow contestants.
Zara Shatavari and her fellow contestants.(Special Arrangement)

Shatavari is a plant from the asparagus family that is known in Ayurvedic medicine for its benefits to female reproductive health. Its name is supposed to mean “she who has a thousand husbands”. I can’t help but squirm with disgust at what must have gone through the head of Rahul Choudhry, the creator of an Artificial Intelligence model named Zara Shatavari, when he bestowed this moniker on his creation. Zara Shatavari will represent India in the world’s first AI beauty pageant, organised by the social media platform Fanvue. The pageant has a USD 20,000 prize and “contestants” will be judged for their “impact” as influencers and models, on three criteria: beauty, tech proficiency, and social influence.

The scare quotes are all mine. Take a second to take it all in: entities that exist only digitally will be assessed and rewarded as if they are human. The panel of judges includes two people and two AI models.

Beauty pageants are problematic. Influencer culture is problematic. AI is problematic. Bring the three together and you get something quite bizarre and questionable indeed. Much is already being said about — and specifically, against — AI in the world, especially from the perspectives of labour rights (people losing jobs to tech) and artistic integrity (how AI makes a mockery of talent, time invested and more). Detractors also demand why AI cannot be used for far better ends. To use an analogy common in progressive conversations: technology is so advanced that it can send rockets to the moon, but manual scavenging has yet to be eliminated in India. There is so much that AI can do — and could be used for — but the funding and the interest seem to focus on and celebrate capitalistic and cost-cutting usages.

To return to Zara Shatavari and the strange, simulated pageant: some may scoff and say that the whole industry of models and influencers is built on artificiality, superficiality and the unrealistic anyway, so why bother paying attention to this frivolousness. But I would argue that this pageant is merely indicative of how quickly, and ironically, even creatively, AI is being used to take over spaces and livelihoods. As constantlyonline consumers, the growth of AI in that space will have an effect on us, beyond the industry.

AI is not the same as the human imagination. Entirely chimerical objects — such as books and movies — that are crafted through human ingenuity are different from entirely chimerical objects — like AI models and certain NFTs — that exist only digitally but are anthropomorphised.

Some argue that AI can be used to enhance and support creativity, not usurp it, but to that, author Joanna Maciejewska’s recently viral observation is a great rejoinder: “I want AI to do my laundry and dishes so that I can do art and writing, not for AI to do my art and writing so that I can do my laundry and dishes.” (In India, where human beings are often employed for laundry and dishes, this opens onto another conversation).

What makes Artificial Intelligence dangerous are entirely human failings: our greed, our laziness, our lack of community-orientedness and mostly, our myopic justifications for the fulfilments of immediate needs.

The Venus flytrap

Sharanya Manivannan


The columnist is a writer and illustrator

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