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More online sellers are using AI-generated images, so what you buy may look different

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

More and more online sellers are using images generated by artificial intelligence to entice customers. AI lets retailers showcase products that may not exist yet and probably won't look the same when actually produced. It's a whole new reason for buyers to beware. Our colleagues at the Indicator from Planet Money, Adrian Ma and Wailin Wong, tell us more.

ADRIAN MA, BYLINE: So recently, Assan Sayad (ph) is scrolling through his Instagram feed - you know, like we do - scroll, scroll, scroll. And then suddenly, he stops. His eyes come to rest on an ad for a jacket.

ASSAN SAYAD: I was like, OK, maybe this is my calling to just own this jacket that looks really cool.

WAILIN WONG, BYLINE: So he clicks through. It takes him to a website called ccmom.cc, and he places an order.

MA: And when it finally did arrive, he tore it open to find...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAYAD: Looks like it, but...

MA: ...That it was a jacket, but it wasn't the jacket.

SAYAD: There's no quilting. There is - none of the details that appear in the image exist in this jacket. It's just a printed design.

WONG: So Assan says, even before he received the jacket, he had started to suspect something was off. So he went back to the website - ccmom.cc.

SAYAD: And it looked legit.

WONG: But then he took a closer look at the product page for the jacket. And that's when he started to wonder if he was looking at an actual photo of the jacket he ordered or if this image was generated by AI, you know, using one of those programs like Dall-E or Stable Diffusion.

MA: To be clear, it can be incredibly difficult to tell if an image is made with AI just by looking at it. So Assan does not know for certain that the picture of the jacket was made with AI and neither do we. When we reached out to the company Ccmom directly, we didn't get a response.

WONG: Assan actually got his Ph.D. researching how AI can be used to generate images. And he believes there are some clues.

SAYAD: Looking deeper into these details, like the corners, the zippers - when you look at them, these all look, like, AI-generated. You can see that the zipper is not symmetric.

MA: It looks kind of squiggly in parts.

SAYAD: Exactly, yeah.

MA: Yeah.

SAYAD: And, like, there are other things that you can kind of take a look at, right? Like, on the quilting itself, you will see some very random lines

MA: In this new era of AI-generated images, Hany Farid says consumers are right to be skeptical when shopping online. Hany is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in digital forensics.

HANY FARID: We're seeing it on e-commerce sites everywhere, where people are posting things that either don't exist or are exaggerations of what they look like.

WONG: So we asked Hany, what can consumers do about this? Does he have any tips for spotting AI-generated images?

FARID: These technologies are developing very quickly. And whatever weaknesses I can point to you right now won't be there three, six, nine months from now.

MA: Hany says, instead of putting all the burden on consumers to spot potential scams, he says companies should play a role, too. So if online retailers find sellers using AI in deceptive ways, they should boot those sellers off the platform. And one more idea Hany says has some promise is digital watermarking. Think of it as a seal of authenticity, except the opposite - like a seal of inauthenticity?

WONG: Until there are really reliable ways of spotting potential fakes, consumers more than ever should just beware.

MA: Adrian Ma.

WONG: Wailin Wong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "L") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Adrian Ma
Adrian Ma covers work, money and other "business-ish" for NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money.
Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong is a long-time business and economics journalist who's reported from a Chilean mountaintop, an embalming fluid factory and lots of places in between. She is a host of The Indicator from Planet Money. Previously, she launched and co-hosted two branded podcasts for a software company and covered tech and startups for the Chicago Tribune. Wailin started her career as a correspondent for Dow Jones Newswires in Buenos Aires. In her spare time, she plays violin in one of the oldest community orchestras in the U.S.