Illustrating the Materiality of AI

Silicon block on a plain black background

The physical materials involved in designing, producing, and running artificially intelligent systems are all-too-frequently largely absent from discussions of AI itself. As a result, the implications of AI’s intense materiality continue to be overlooked and unremedied.

By picturing the physicality of artificial intelligence within the Better Images of AI repository, with the contributions of Catherine Breslin and Fritzchens Fritz, we hope to foster more accurate representations of these emerging technologies.

Picturing Silicon

Catherine Breslin

Silicon is a crucial component of AI manufacture. A block like the one pictured here would be sliced into 12 inch diameter wafers to form the base of CPUs. Picturing silicon visually illustrates that the ‘mining’ of AI is not purely metaphorical (e.g. data mining) but also a literal, material undertaking. Catherine Breslin, the photographer, operates within the AI supply-chain first-hand in her work as a machine-learning voice engineer and consultant, previously involved in the production of Amazon’s Alexa.

A block of silicon (also known as a mono-crystal) placed on a plain black background and photographed in HD to make its rich, reflective and complex surface visible.
Catherine Breslin / Better Images of AI / Silicon on Black 1 / CC-BY 4.0
A block of silicon (also known as a mono-crystal) placed on a plain black background and photographed in HD to make its rich, reflective and complex surface visible.
Catherine Breslin / Better Images of AI / Silicon Closeup / CC-BY 4.0

GPUs, etched.

Fritzchens Fritz

Three colorful GPUs with their packaging cleanly removed laying on a white surface
Fritzchens Fritz / Better Images of AI / GPU shot etched 2 / CC-BY 4.0

The GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) is an essential part of modern AI infrastructure. It’s a special type of chip or electronic circuit, originally designed to process images and render graphics and now used for other computational tasks, including training neural networks in deep learning. Die-shots are close-up photographs of computer chips, from which the “packaging“ is removed, usually by undergoing a quite dangerous etching process involving sulfuric acid and high temperatures. The artist has used a combination of external light sources, polarising filters on the camera lense and image post production to create the colourful effect, capturing with this shot three NVIDIA Turing Chips (TU104, TU106, TU116).

Abstract microscopic photography of a Graphics Processing Unit resembling a satellite image of a big city
Fritzchens Fritz / Better Images of AI / GPU shot etched 5 / CC-BY 4.0

Why these images?

Tania Duarte, who coordinates the Better Images of AI collaboration, explains why the project has elected to commission and include these images as part of their repository:

“All too often we see images of AI in virtual, holographic forms, or find ourselves repeatedly presented with circuit brains in shiny 3D outlines suspended in blue space. These images of AI can make the technology seem intangible and ungovernable; something removed from real-world origins and consequences, perhaps even magical.

Catherine Breslin’s striking silicon rock images show the materiality of AI, and allude to the environmental impact: the physical reality of extracting natural resources for the industry and its toll on people and the planet. It also showcases the stunning beauty of the natural rock, in an iconic image echoing the shiny sci-fi robots in representations of AI, but falling much closer to its physical reality.

The next images of GPUs – made from silicon, are fascinating in that they show a further stage in the production of the hardware which enables AI systems. They are also visually compelling, showing a vibrant use of colour much more reflective of the many outputs of AI, and makes me wonder why in trying to make AI exciting, organisations use such limited and cliched colour palettes.”

Press release: Better Images of AI launches a free stock image library of more realistic images of artificial intelligence

  • Non-profit collaboration starts to make and distribute more accurate and inclusive visual representations of AI
  • Follows research showing that current popular images of AI using themes like white human-like robots and glowing brains and blue backgrounds create barriers to understanding of technology, trust, and diversity
  • Available for technical, science, news and general media and marketing communications

December 14, 2021 08:00 AM Coordinated Universal Time (UTC)

LONDON, UK. Today sees the launch of Better Images of AI Image Library, which makes available the first commissioned and curated stock images of artificial intelligence (AI) in response to various research studies which have substantiated concerns about the negative impacts of the existing available imagery. is a collaboration between various global academics, artists, diversity advocates, and non-profit organisations. It aims to help create a more representative and realistic visual language for AI systems, themes, applications and impacts. It is now starting to provide free images, guidance and visual inspiration for those communicating on AI technologies. 

At present, the available downloadable images on photo libraries, search engines, and content platforms are dominated by a limited range of images, for example, those based on science fiction inspired shiny robots, glowing brains and blue backgrounds. These tropes are often used as inspiration even when new artwork is commissioned by media or tech companies.

The first few images to be released on the library showcase different approaches to visually communicating technologies such as computer vision and natural language processing and to communicating themes such as the role of ‘click workers’ who annotate data use in machine learning training and other human input to machine learning.

A photographic rendering of a young black man standing in front of a cloudy blue sky, seen through a refractive glass grid and overlaid with a diagram of a neural network
Image by Alan Warburton / © BBC / Better Images of AI / Quantified Human / Licenced by CC-BY 4.0
Two digitally illustrated green playing cards on a white background, with the letters A and I in capitals and lowercase calligraphy over modified photographs of human mouths in profile.
Alina Constantin / Better Images of AI / Handmade A.I / Licenced by CC-BY 4.0
A banana, a plant and a flask on a monochrome surface, each one surrounded by a thin white frame with letters attached that spell the name of the objects
Max Gruber / Better Images of AI / Banana / Plant / Flask / Licenced by CC-BY 4.0

Better Images of AI is coordinated by We and AI and includes research, development and artistic input from BBC R&D, with academic partners Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence. Founding supporters of the initiative include the Ada Lovelace Institute, The Alan Turing Institute, The Institute for Human-Centred AI, Digital Catapult, International Centre for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities (IZEW), All Tech is Human, Feminist Internet and the Finnish Center for Artificial Intelligence (FCAI). These organisations will advise on the creation of images, ensuring that social and technical considerations and expertise underpin the creation and distribution of compelling new images.

Octavia Reeve, Interim Lead, Ada Lovelace Institute said:

“The images that depict AI play a fundamental role in shaping how we perceive it. Those perceptions shape the ways AI is built, designed, used and adopted. To ensure these technologies work for people and society we must develop more representative, inclusive, diverse and realistic images of AI. The Ada Lovelace Institute is delighted to be a Founding Supporter of the Better Images of AI initiative.”

Dr. Kanta Dihal, Senior Research Fellow at the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, University of Cambridge said:

“Images of white plastic androids, Terminators, and blue brains have been increasingly widely criticized for misinforming people about what AI is, but until now there has been a huge lack of suitable alternative images. I am incredibly excited to see the Better Images of AI project leading the way in providing these alternatives.”

Dr. Charlotte Webb, Co-founder of Feminist Internet said: 

“The images we use to describe and represent AI shape not only how it is understood in the public imaginary, but also how we build, interact with and subvert it. Better Images is trying to intervene in the picturing of AI so we can expand beyond the biases and lack of imagination embedded in today’s stock imagery.”  

Professor Teemu Roos, Finnish Center for Artificial Intelligence, University of Helsinki said:

Images are not just decoration – especially in today’s fast-paced media environment, headlines and illustrations count at least as much as the actual story. But while it’s easy to call out bad stock photos, it’s very hard to find good alternatives. I’m extremely happy to see an initiative like the Better Images of AI filling a huge gap in the way we can communicate about AI without perpetuating harmful misconceptions and mystification of AI.

David Ryan Polgar, Founder and Director of All Tech Is Human said:

“Visual representation of artificial intelligence greatly influences our overall conception of how AI is impacting society, along with signalling inclusion of who is, and who should be, involved in the process. Given the ubiquitous nature of AI and its broad impact on most every aspect of our lives, Better Images of AI is a much-needed shift away from the intimidatingly technical and often mystical portrayal of AI that assumes an unwarranted neutrality. AI is made by humans and all humans should feel welcome to participate in the conversation around it.”

Tania Duarte, Co-Founder of We and AI said:

“We have found that misconceptions about AI make it hard for people to be aware of the impact of AI systems in their lives, and the human agency behind them. Myths about sentient robots are fuelled by the pictures they see, which are overhyped, futuristic, colonial, and distract from the real opportunities and issues. That’s why We and AI are so pleased to have coordinated this project which will build greater public engagement with AI, and support more trustworthy AI.”

The Better Images of AI project has so far been funded by volunteers at We and AI and BBC R&D, and now invites sponsors, donations in kind and other support in order to grow the repository and ensure that more images from artists from underrepresented groups, and from the global south can be included. 

Better Images of AI invites interest from organisations who wish to know more about the briefs developed as part of the project and to get involved in working with artists to represent their AI projects. They also wish to make contact with artists and art organisations who are interested in joining the project.


For further information: info (at)

For funding offers: tania.duarte (at)




We and AI are a UK non-profit organisation engaging, connecting and activating communities to make AI work for everybody. Their volunteers develop programmes including the Race and AI Toolkit, and AI Literacy & AI in Society workshops. They support a greater diversity of people to get involved in shaping the impact and opportunities of AI systems.
Website: Email: hello (at)