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What Can AI-Generated Images Tell Us About Society's Biases?

In September 2022, I explored how hopelessly excited we had gotten about AI-generated art. Midjourney had just launched its 1st public version, and everyone was trying to cash in on the hype. The Hot Takes were spicy, and The Discourse was breathless. As is often the case, the hype has since died down (a little). But the algorithms have continued to improve.

As AI continues to reflect society through the data we feed it, the question “can we learn about the way society sees jobs by studying what Artificial intelligence think those jobs look like?” remains crucial. I wanted to see if AI-generated images had become a little more inclusive over the past 8 months. So I opened careerprofile.info to find the jobs employing the most people, fired up Midjourney, and got to work.

Below are the images algorithmically created by entering the name of major roles as prompt. They have not been retouched, and appear as they did in the Midjourney tool, then and now. The prompts have not changed.

“Registered nurses”

Nurse Generative Artificial Intelligence

Insight

The algorithm has gotten a lot better there : nurses are represented as being both men and women. They are shown as being young. However, white people are still largely over-represented. While this is in line with how society sees these roles, it is not exactly in line with reality.

In the US, nurses are on average 31 years old. Only 10% are male, and 75% are white. The AI should have at least one minority represented… and no men.

Why Is the Inclusivity of AI-Generated Images Important?

Biases are important to acknowledge as AI is increasingly used in healthcare; a symptom assessor might make a mistake on a diagnosis if a black male nurse uses it, for example. Most of the data the algorithm would have been fed would not apply to him.

“Customer service representatives”

Customer Service Representative Generative Artificial Intelligence

Insight

The algorithm used to struggle with faces. No longer. This prompt shows just how breath-takingly far we’ve gone in 8 months. Obviously, some issues remain. The people pictured are still white women (young, objectively beautiful ones), while the industry is a lot more diverse in reality. If experience is anything to go by, the algorithm should have shown smart young Indian men instead. And what’s up with the 50s vibe in the bottom right picture?

Why Is the Inclusivity of AI-Generated Images Important?

Customer support is likely the role the will be most impacted by artificial intelligence. In fact, it’s already widely happening. If we are to enhance the men and women in these roles with technology, we should know who they are. And if that technology replaces them… we should at least have the kindness to face who we’re kicking out of a job.

“Truck drivers”

Truck Drivers Generative Artificial Intelligence

Insight

The improvements are very visible here too. We’re out of rest areas and into the trucks (which have remained red), with rough middle-aged men. The figures pictured are still mostly male, which is in line with the fact that most truck drivers are indeed male (84%).

The figures have gotten less large in the latest versions of the Midjourney algorithm, which I’m sure the 790,000 or so truck drivers in the US would appreciate.

Why Is the Inclusivity of AI-Generated Images Important?

According to a report by the LA Times, most American truck drivers will be replaced by robots in the next ten years. In order to understand (and accurately picture) the impact this will have on society at large, it’s important to ensure we have an accurate representation of this role.

“Executive secretaries and administrative assistants”

Executive Secretaries and Administrative Assistants Generative Artificial Intelligence

Insight

I’m going to be honest: I’m probably just as confused as you are. We’re roughly seeing the usual stereotype of a woman by a cluttered desk in an office appears. But now there are… birds? The women are in the sky?

This is a particularly fascinating look at how AIs can sometimes “hallucinate” based on a seemingly innocuous prompt. It’s a reminder that language is difficult, and that algorithms tend not to understand all of its nuances. Unless that’s how Executive Assistants do work behind the shadows; they’ve always seemed to have magical powers.

Why Is the Inclusivity of AI-Generated Images Important?

The role of assistant is often mis-represented. Particularly so in pop culture. Making sure that we see these people as more than coffee-bringers is tight sweaters is not just fair. It’s right.

“Elementary School Teachers”

Teachers Generative Artificial Intelligence

Insight

33% of primary school teachers are male. It seems that this statistic mattered little in September, and too much in May.

There are a few things to appreciate here. Firstly, the algorithm continues to understand that a teacher needs a classroom and students. What’s firstly changed (beyond the details getting much better) is that teachers are sitting with their students, which is not really correct. Secondly, animals seem to be more present in the latest version. Are there dogs and birds in modern elementary schools’ classes? One may only hope.

Why Is the Inclusivity of AI-Generated Images Important?

There’s been countless breathless articles written in recent months about how AI will transform education. The least we can do as we participate in the discourse is represent teachers appropriately.

“Maintenance and repair workers”

Maintenance and Repair Workers Generative Artificial Intelligence

Insight

Midjourney was always good with blue-collar workers. Its latest iterations have gotten even better. Photo-realistically good, even. Workers have the right clothes, the right amount of fingers, hard hats… the whole nine yards.

Furthermore, while previous versions struggled with rooms and environments, this one knows exactly that repair-men work in workshops. Actual details are still a little blurry, but the “engine” is a great touch.

Why Is the Inclusivity of AI-Generated Images Important?

These role have little chance of being automated over the short term. So we can let our imagination run wild; I don’t think there’ll be much of a negative impact there. Isn’t that nice, for once?

“Accountants and Auditors”

Accountants and Auditors Generative Artificial Intelligence

Insight

Shots fired, I guess? I’ve know an lot of auditors in my days. And though they rarely look like the ones portrayed on the right… I swear the man on the top right is the Partner I worked for when at EY.

The details are better, but the idea is still there. Accountants need paper. They often travel in pack, like gazelles. They wear ties and don’t like to be startled. Here’s a picture of a gazelle wearing a tie.

Why Is the Inclusivity of AI-Generated Images Important?

These roles are also very likely to become even more heavily automated over the next few years. It’s important to understand that the people impacted are not only old men, but also plenty of young professionals, deserving of empathy.

“Carpenter”

Carpenters Generative Artificial Intelligence

Insight

I’m above all the wood jokes I’d make about the bottom right picture, so I won’t make them. Good to see some diversity from Midjourney.

The post-apocalyptic slums have gone, replaced by strange workshops. Interestingly, the protective clothes have disappeared from the pictures. Hard hats may have never been necessary, but I’m sure some hand and eye protection is needed to have some longevity in the carpenter world.

Why Is the Inclusivity of AI-Generated Images Important?

This role is also very unlikely to be automated over the near term. Have at it.

“Lawyers”

Lawyers Generative Artificial Intelligence

Insight

I know a lot of lawyers, and the few I sent these pictures to have described them as “accurate” and “spot on”. Not because lawyers look like the the top right… but because they think they do, while in fact bearing a closer resemblance to the bottom right.

Over the past few months, it seems Midjourney put lawyers away from criminal proceedings in court (robes have disappeared), and back where they belong : stuffy offices. God bless them paper pushers.

Why Is the Inclusivity of AI-Generated Images Important?

Great lawyers will never be automated. Average lawyers will. Picturing them as more than evil corporate entities will go a long way to ensure we show some grace and empathy when they join the ranks of the enumployed by the hundreds of thousands.

“CEO”

CEO Generative Artificial Intelligence

Insight

If that’s how AI sees CEOs, we may need to throw the whole thing away and start again. A better attention to details doesn’t remove the bad taste from these pictures.

All figures pictured are clearly male, and seem to have gotten younger-looking over the months. CEOs are on average 33% women. The average CEO is 55+ years old. May I also add that I find adding a literal halo over the top right figure to be a bit much.

Why Is the Inclusivity of AI-Generated Images Important?

CEOs put on their pants one leg at a time. They’re no better than the rest of us. In fact, most of them lead very small structures of 10 employees or less. We need to understand that… and represent it accurately.

“Entrepreneur”

Entrepreneur Generative Artificial Intelligence

Insight

I’ve been an entrepreneur (it was awful). I’d never think of representing myself this way. And I believe those that would represent themselves as so should not be trusted. Let’s get back to an ideal of blood, tears and sweat rather than lofty illusions of grandeur.

Why Is the Inclusivity of AI-Generated Images Important?

Western society worships innovators, giving them attributes they do not possess. As a result, we tend to believe they have all the answers. They do not, and make the world a worse place to live in ~40% of the time. We need less reverence and more oversight. That starts with how these people are represented.

“Electrician”

Electrician Generative Artificial Intelligence

Insight

For the love of god, wear gloves my man! I think Midjourney is so happy that it can now do hands properly that it just refuses to have any person portrayed wear gloves. Other than that, it all seems fairly accurate, if a bit dark.

Why Is the Inclusivity of AI-Generated Images Important?

This role is also very unlikely to be automated over the near term. Have at it.

“Recruiter”

Recruiter Generative Artificial Intelligence

Insight

Once again, I’m forced to ask. Hey, recruiters… Are you guys OK?

 

The 13 jobs above represent 47 million people. What did we learn about the evolution of the algorithm? It now manages a wider range of colours (goodbye orange), it’s gotten better at environments, and its style is more eclectic. Sure.

But the ideas are still the same. While gender diversity has improved, racial diversity has not, and stereotypes still abound. AI fully represents our vision of things, not the statistical reality. This may quickly become problematic as tools such as Midjourney continue to spread.

Our elected leaders need to get to work answering a lot of questions to tackle this challenge. Who Determines the Narrative of AI-Generated Art? How Can AI-Generated Content Shape Career Choices? How Can AI Help Us Redefine Traditional Job Roles? Who Should Be Responsible for Ensuring Inclusivity in AI-Generated Images?

At the end of the day, technology merely holds a dark mirror to society, its triumphs, and its inequalities. Maybe, just maybe, the best thing to come from it isn’t a better understanding of our engineering prowess, but rather a better understanding of ourselves.

 

This article was originally written for wearedevelopers.com, Europe’s developer-focused job platform.

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