So maybe you've heard that AI is having a moment.

I want to be explicit about my own lens here: I am a developer, an artist, and a lover and avid consumer of art. I understand the impulse to make these generative models, the fears surrounding them, and even the lust to exploit them. The art for this site is all either AI-generated ex nihilo or generated using a photograph I've taken as the basis – a collaborative work if you will. We'll get into whether prompting AI is inherently collaborative in another article.

Having said all of that, in exploring these models you start to realize a few things that show that the majority of the power that people assign to AI art is actually human interpretation of that art, not some inherent quality of the art itself. It takes a fair amount of experimentation, but I will say with confidence that AI is not nearly as amazing at producing art as the human mind is at elevating it, often far beyond the status it deserves. We must realize this basic idea – the faster the better – so we don't despair over the new wave of technological disruption headed our way.

Less Is More

If you want to dig into the cracks in AI and see what it's made of, you give it very little to work with. What happens when you don't give AI a whole thesis on what sort of result you want, and just let it do its thing? Fucking weirdness. That's what happens.

(Note: All art in this article was generated by me using Midjourney v5.)

Always A Manic Pixie Girl

For instance, let's look at how Midjourney interprets a prompt that's just the names of the first four elements on the Periodic Table:

/imagine hydrogen
/imagine helium
... you get the idea
/imagine hydrogen

The first thing you realize about Midjourney AI is that it loves putting people as the center of focus of an image, often when it isn't called for. The next thing you notice is that those people tend to be women. Then you notice the age and relative attractiveness of those women. It is incredibly consistent:

/imagine lithium

The third element, lithium, gets a different palette of young women, one with Harley Quinn hair, but again – when in doubt, slap a feminine face in the middle and ship it out – probably it will still get a thumbs-up from the user. Of course, this feature of AI tells us more about the users of Midjourney than anything about the AI itself. Hell, I like Lithium #1 just on principle, and at least that has metal in it!

It's not all manic pixie girls, at least when there's an abundant source of association with the word. Helium gives us balloons, mostly:

/imagine helium

Helium leads us to balloons, and balloons as a concept are related to kids as a concept, so the images as a whole tend towards some commonality with the word. Let's put a pin in that thought for now.

I'm not entirely sure what's going on with Helium #1 – it looks like Sugar Rush from Wreck-It Ralph. It's not until we get to beryllium, the fourth element on the table, that we have a different kind of face.

/imagine beryllium

... and then we get acting legend and all-around awesome activist James Cromwell in an airplane hangar. It's not until boron that we get a batch of images that have nothing to do with the element or even the washing powder, but at least aren't four portraits of someone masquerading as a chemical.

/imagine boron

This image does give us a glimpse of other gestalt nuggets rattling around in Midjourney: people gawking at something in the sky, random spheres, and not-quite-Harry-Potter. That archetype is another common figure that gets thrown into the mix.

By the way, each of the palettes that I've pasted above was the first result I got back from running the prompt the first time. The case doesn't get stronger for Midjourney if I make it think I didn't like what I got the first time around. After two more iterations of the helium prompt, I got:

/imagine helium (Round 3)

Helium is a redhead. Who knew? And finally the sixth element, the noble gas argon:

/imagine argon

We're not quite back where we started, but it rhymes.

Great Balls of Fire, In the Sky, With Diamonds

Glamour shots aren't the only thing that pops out of Midjourney when it doesn't know what else to do with a prompt. I've found that another go-to is the "tiny people in the foreground gazing in wonder at something in the sky", I've seen it several times before, but it struck me when I gave Midjourney the prompt /imagine archaea – archaea are incredibly ancient, incredibly tiny single-celled organisms that don't have nuclei – and I got this:

/imagine archaea

Or how about we just imagine a forest?

/imagine forest

Or the word "dandriff", which is just an alternate spelling of "dandruff" – I'll admit that I've used some very strange words from this API in exploring AI art – gave me this piece, worthy of a dark-light poster in a weed dispensary:

/imagine dandriff

To be sure, I have no idea where this motif comes from in Midjourney. I don't know enough about how image generation works to do more than speculate. I hypothesize that it has something to do with how the image is generated from noise – if you watch Midjourney working, images always start as a roundish blob of one color on a different background color. Maybe without any real guidance from the prompt, that blobbishness just gets refined and crystallized.

I Can't Even.

Then there are the images that come boiling out of AI like surprise eels from your toilet, and where wind up surprised or even disturbed by the alien-seeming logic of it all. For the sake of the general audience, I'll skip over some images that look right at home with H.R. Giger, or Eraserhead. These are more along the lines of "WTF?"

Midjourney's attempt at the visual representation of "Javascript":

/imagine javascript

Or the town of Muonionalusta, where a meteorite fell about a million years ago in a remote part of Sweden (my attempt here was to get a texture like meteoritic iron):

/imagine muonionalusta

Or how about some nonsense words? That's pushing the envelope even further in terms of AI weirdness. For instance, the nonsense word "loab" grants us a giant orange owl cyclops over a floating island mansion.

/imagine loab

Or the phrase "grink flurn", which gives us this palette, which includes at least one manic pixie girl:

/imagine grink flurn

Hey Midjourney, what do you think of technology? Oh ... ok.

/imagine technology

And That's Where You Come In

The overwhelming question that comes to mind when I view most products of AI art is:


What possible combination of factors, reinforcement by the user base, programming bias, or just plain stochastic chaos in the models creates these images that I find so perplexing? My mind immediately wants to know the reasoning behind the choices made by the AI, the image fragments it selected, and the endless loops of choices made.

It was while I was doing a slew of these sorts of prompts that the answer came to me: Asking the 'why' of AI is a mug's game. The AI is just doing what it does procedurally – looping through all of the combined neural pushes and pulls of the model until it hits the end of the run.

It's the person taking the image in that's struck by the combination of elements, and meaning is both extracted from it and imbued back into it. Granted, this is true for any artwork - I mean, at some level, that's what art is. Where things get tangled up is in our natural reflex to look at the output of AI and expect that it was created intentionally – that there's a message being conveyed with the images that go beyond "this shape and color from this image was tagged with 'dinosaur', so I'll mix it with this other image also tagged with the word 'dinosaur'". We give AI far not only more credit than it deserves for the composition of the images that we see, but we also give it agency. For lack of a better word, we give AI art soul.

That's the real crux of the issue: The only true intelligence in AI art is you.

That doesn't hold true when we look at human-generated art – the artist made any given piece for a reason, even if that reason is practical, obscene, or any other excuse under the sun. That can feel true for generative AI, but it isn't. There are influences, sure – there are plenty of documented cases of sampling bias in AI, for example, with professions. I feel that the majority of what AI art evokes in us comes from our own pattern-recognition processes fighting with what looks like a piece of human art – something made with purpose and invested with time, energy, and occasional talent. Instead, AI art is, at best, a lucky collage of visual noise. Our brains can't square that circle, the lack of soul, so we immediately start inventing the purpose and projecting that back onto the art.

It just isn't so, no matter how many people become convinced that current AI is sentient.

That may change in the near future, and believe me when I say that I feel that change coming straight at us. But right now, everyone needs to take a step back and realize that the power of AI art is in the human looking at it, not the generator. The powerful feelings we associate with generative AI are us, reflected back at ourselves. We're the only soul in the room.