Co-creating Better Images of AI

Yasmine Boudiaf (left) and Tamsin Nooney (right) deliver a talk during the workshop ‘Co-creating Better Images of AI’

In July, 2023, Science Gallery London and the London Office of Technology and Innovation co-hosted a workshop helping Londoners think about the kind of AI they want. In this post, Dr. Peter Rees reflects on the event, describes its methodology, and celebrates some of the new images that resulted from the day.

Who can create better images of Artificial Intelligence (AI)? There are common misleading tropes of the images which dominate our culture such as white humanoid robots, glowing blue brains, and various iterations of the extinction of humanity. Better Images of AI  is on a mission to increase AI literacy and inclusion by countering unhelpful images. Everyone should get a say in what AI looks like and how they want to make it work for them. No one perspective or group should dominate how Al is conceptualised and imagined.

This is why we were delighted to be able to run the workshop ‘Co-creating Better Images of AI’ during London Data Week. It was a chance to bring together over 50 members of the public, including creative artists, technologists, and local government representatives to each make our own images of AI. Most images of AI that appear online and in the newspapers are copied directly from existing stock image libraries. This workshop set out to see what would happen when we created new images fromscratch. We experimented with creative drawing techniques and collaborative dialogues to create images. Participants’ amazing imaginations and expertise went into a melting-pot which produced an array of outputs. This blogpost reports on a selection of the visual and conceptual takeaways! I offer this account as a personal recollection of the workshop—I can only hope to capture some of the main themes and moments, and I apologise for all that I have left out. 

The event was held at the Science Gallery in London on 4th July 2023 between 3-5pm and was hosted in partnership with London Data Week, funded by the London Office of Innovation and Technology. In keeping with the focus on London Data Week and LOTI, the workshop set out to think about how AI is used every day in the lives of Londoners, to help Londoners think about the kind of AI they want, to re-imagine AI so that we can build systems that work for us.

Workshop methodology

I said the workshop started out from scratch—well, almost. We certainly wanted to make use of the resources already out there such as the [Better Images of AI: A Guide for Users and Creators] co-authored by Dr Kanta Dihal and Tania Duarte. This guide was helpful because it not only suggested some things to avoid, but also provided stimulation for what kind of images we might like to make instead. What made the workshop a success was the wide-ranging and generous contributions—verbal and visual—from invited artists and technology experts, as well as public participants, who all offered insights and produced images, some of which can be found below (or even in the Science Gallery).

The Workshop was structured in two rounds, each with a live discussion and creative drawing ‘challenge’. The approach was to stage a discussion between an artist and a technology expert (approx 15 mins), and then all members of the workshop would have some time (again, approx 15 mins) for creative drawing. The purpose of the live discussion was to provide an accessible introduction to the topic and its challenges, after which we all tackled the challenge of visualising and representing different elements of AI production, use and impact. I will now briefly describe these dialogues, and unveil some of the images created.

Setting the scene

Tania Duarte (Founder, We and AI) launched the workshop with a warm welcome to all. Then, workshop host Dr Robert Elliot-Smith (Director of AI and Data Science at Digital Catapult) introduced the topic of Large Language Models (LLMs) by reminding the audience that such systems are like ‘autocorrect on steroids’: the model is simply very good at predicting words, it does not have any deep understanding of the meaning of the text it produces. He also discussed image-generators, which work in a similar way and with similar problems, which is why certain AI-produced images end up garbling images of hands and arms: they do not understand anatomy.

In response to this preliminary introduction, one participant who described herself as a visual artist expressed horror at the power of such image-generating and labelling AI systems to limit and constrain our perception of reality itself. She described how, if we are to behave as artists, what we have to do in our minds is to avoid seeing everything simply in terms of fixed categories which can conservatively restrain the imagination, keeping it within a set of known categorisations, which is limiting not only our imagination but also our future. For instance, why is the thing we see in front of us necessarily a ‘wall’? Could it not be, seeing more abstractly, simply a straight line? 

From her perspective, AI models seem to be frighteningly powerful mechanisms for reinforcing existing categories for what we are seeing, and therefore also of how to see, what things are, even what we are, and what kind of behaviour is expected. Another participant agreed: it is frustrating to get the same picture from 100 different inputs and they all look so similar. Indeed, image generators might seem to be producing novelty, but there is an important sense in which they are reinforcing the past categories of the data on which they were trained.

This discussion raised big questions leading into the first challenge: the limitations of large language models.

Round 1: The Limitations of Large Language Models

A live discussion was staged between Yasmine Boudiaf (recognised as one of ‘100 Brilliant Women in AI Ethics 2022,’ and fellow at the Ada Lovelace Institute) and Tamsin Nooney (AI Research, BBC R&D) about the process of creating LLMs.

Yasmine asked Tamsin about how the BBC, as a public broadcaster, can use LLMs in a reliable manner, and invited everyone in the room to note down any words they found intriguing, as those words might form a stimulus for their creative drawings.

Tamsin described an example of LLM use-case for the BBC in producing a podcast whereby an LLM could summarise the content, add in key markers and meta-data labels and help to process the content. She emphasised how rigorous testing is required to gain confidence in the LLM’s reliability for a specific task before it could be used. A risk is that a lot of work might go into developing the model only for it to never be usable at all.

Following Yasmine’s line of question, Tamsin described how the BBC deal with the significant costs and environmental impacts of using LLMs. She described how the BBC calculated if they wanted to train their LLM, even a very small one, it would take up all their servers at full capacity for over a year, so they won’t do that! The alternative is then to pay other services such as Amazon to use their model, which means balancing costs: so here are limits due to scale, cost, and environmental impact.

This was followed by a more quiet, but by no means silent, 15 minutes for drawing time in which all participants drew…

Drawing by Marie Jannine Murmann. Abstract cogwheels suggesting that AI tools can be quickly developed to output nonsense but, with adequate human oversight and input, AI tools can be iteratively improved to produce the best outputs they can.
Drawing by Marie Jannine Murmann. Abstract cogwheels suggesting that AI tools can be quickly developed to output nonsense but, with adequate human oversight and input, AI tools can be iteratively improved to produce the best outputs they can.

One participant used an AI image generator for their creative drawing, making a picture of a toddler covered in paint to depict the LLM and its unpredictable behaviours. Tamsin suggested that this might be giving the LLM too much credit! Toddlers, like cats and dogs, have a basic and embodied perception of the world and base knowledge, which LLMs do not have.

Drawing by Howard Elston. An LLM is drawn as an ear, interpreting different inputs from various children.
Drawing by Howard Elston. An LLM is drawn as an ear, interpreting different inputs from various children.

The experience of this discussion and drawing also raised, for another participant, more big questions. She discussed poet David Whyte’s work on the ‘conversational nature of reality’ and thought on how the self is not just inside us but is created through interaction with others and through language. For instance, she mentioned that when you read or hear the word ‘yes’, you have a physical feeling of ‘yesness’ inside, and similarly for ‘no’. She suggested that our encounters with machine-made language produced by LLMs is similar. This language shapes our conversations and interactions, so there is a sense in which the ‘transformers’ (the technical term for the LLM machinery) is also helping to transform our senses of self and the boundary between what is reality and what is fantasy. 

Here, we have the image made by artist Yasmine based on her discussion with Tamsin:

Three groups of icons representing people have shapes travelling between them and a page in the middle of the image. The page is a simple rectangle with straight lines representing data. The shapes traveling towards the page are irregular and in squiggly bands.
Image by Yasmine Boudiaf. Three groups of icons representing people have shapes travelling between them and a page in the middle of the image. The page is a simple rectangle with straight lines representing data. The shapes traveling towards the page are irregular and in squiggly bands.

Yasmine writes:

This image shows an example of Large Language Model in use. Audio data is gathered from a group of people in a meeting. Their speech is automatically transcribed into text data. The text is analysed and relevant segments are selected. The output generated is a short summary text of the meeting. It was inspired by BBC R&D’s process for segmenting podcasts, GPT-4 text summary tools and LOTI’s vision for taking minutes at meetings.

Yasmine Boudiaf

You can now find this image in the Better Images of AI library, and use it with the appropriate attribution: Image by Yasmine Boudiaf / © LOTI / Better Images of AI / Data Processing / CC-BY 4.0. With the first challenge complete, it was time for the second round.

Round 2: Generative AI in Public Services

This second and final round focused on use cases for generative AI in the public sector, specifically by local government. Again, a live discussion was held, this time between Emily Rand (illustrator and author of seven books and recognised by the Children’s Laureate, Lauren Child, to be featured in Drawing Words) and Sam Nutt (Researcher & Data Ethicist, London Office of Technology and Innovation). They built on the previous exploration of LLMs by considering new generative AI applications which they enable for local councils and how they might transform our everyday services.

Emily described how she illustrates by hand, and described her [work] as focusing on the tangible and the real. Making illustrations about AI, whose workings are not obviously visible, was an exciting new topic. See her illustration and commentary below. 

Sam described his role as part of the innovation team which sits across 26 of the boroughs of London and Mayor of London. He helps boroughs to think about how to use data responsibly. In the context of local government data and services, a lot of data collected about residents is statutory (meaning they cannot opt out of giving it), such as council tax data. There is a big prerogative for dealing with such data, especially for sensitive personal health data, that privacy is protected and bias is minimised. He considered some use cases. For instance, council officers can use ChatGPT to draft letters to residents to increase efficiency butthey must not put any personal information into ChatGPT, otherwise data privacy can be compromised. Or, for example, the use of LLMs to summarise large archives of local government data concerning planning permission applications, or the minutes from council meetings, which are lengthy and often technical, which could be made significantly more accessible to many members of the public and researchers. 

Sam also raised the concern that it is very important that residents know how councils use their data so that councils can be held accountable. Therefore this has to be explained and made understandable to residents. Note that 3% of Londoners are totally offline, not using internet at all, so that’s 270,000 people—who also have an equal right to understand how the council uses their data—who need to be reached through offline means. This example brings home the importance of increasing inclusive public Al literacy.

Again, we all drew. Here are a couple of striking images made by participants who also kindly donated their pictures and words to the project:

Drawing by Yokako Tanaka. An abstract blob is outlined encrusted with different smaller shapes at different points around it. The image depicts an ideal approach to AI in the public sector, which is inclusive of all positionalities.
Drawing by Yokako Tanaka. An abstract blob is outlined encrusted with different smaller shapes at different points around it. The image depicts an ideal approach to AI in the public sector, which is inclusive of all positionalities.
Drawing by Aisha Sobey. A computer claims to have “solved the banana” after listing the letters that spell “banana” – whilst a seemingly analytical process has been followed, the computer isn’t providing much insight nor solving any real problem.
Drawing by Aisha Sobey. A computer claims to have “solved the banana” after listing the letters that spell “banana” – whilst a seemingly analytical process has been followed, the computer isn’t providing much insight nor solving any real problem.
Practically identical houses are lined up at the bottom of the image. Out of each house's chimney, columns of binary code – 1's and 0's – emerge.
“Data Houses,” by Joahna Kuiper. Here, the author described how these three common houses are all sending a distress signal—a new kind of smoke signal, but in binary code. And in her words: ‘one of these houses is sending out a distress signal, calling out for help, but I bet you don’t know which one.’ The problem of differentiating who needs what when.
A big eye floats above rectangles containing rows of dots and cryptic shapes.
“Big eye drawing,” by Hui Chen. Another participant described their feeling that ‘we are being watched by big eye, constantly checking on us and it boxes us into categories’. Certain areas are highly detailed and refined, certain other areas, the ‘murky’ or ‘cloudy’ bits, are where the people don’t fit the model so well, and they are more invisible.
Rows of people are randomly overlayed by computer cursors.
An early iteration of Emily Rand’s “AI City.”

Emily started by llustrating the idea of bias in AI. Her initial sketches showed an image showing lines of people of various sizes, ages, ethnicities and bodies. Various cursors showed the cis white able bodied people being selected over the others. Emily also did a sketch of the shape of a City and ended up combining the two. She added frames to show the way different people are clustered. The frame shows the area around the person, where they might have a device sending data about them.

 Emily’s final illustration is below, and can be downloaded from here and used for free with the correct attribution Image by Emily Rand / © LOTI / Better Images of AI / AI City / CC-BY 4.0.

Building blocks are overlayed with digital squares that highlight people living their day-to-day lives through windows. Some of the squares are accompanied by cursors.

At the end of the workshop, I was left with feelings of admiration and positivity. Admiration of the stunning array of visual and conceptual responses from participants, and in particular the candid and open manner of their sharing. And positivity because the responses were often highlighting the dangers of AI as well as the benefits—its capacity to reinforce systemic bias and aid exploitation—but these critiques did not tend to be delivered in an elegiac or sad tone, they seemed more like an optimistic desire to understand the technology and make it work in an inclusive way. This seemed a powerful approach.

The results

The Better Images of AI mission is to create a free repository of better images of AI with more realistic, accurate, inclusive and diverse ways to represent AI. Was this workshop a success and how might it inform Better Images of AI work going forward?

Tania Duarte, who coordinates the Better Images of AI collaboration, certainly thought so:

It was great to see such a diverse group of people come together to find new and incredibly insightful and creative ways of explaining and visualising generative AI and its uses in the public sector. The process of questioning and exploring together showed the multitude of lenses and perspectives through which often misunderstood technologies can be considered. It resulted in a wealth of materials which the participants generously left with the project, and we aim to get some of these developed further to work on the metaphors and visual language further. We are very grateful for the time participants put in, and the ideas and drawings they donated to the project. The Better Images of AI project, as an unfunded non-profit is hugely reliant on volunteers and donated art, and it is a shame such work is so undervalued. Often stock image creators get paid $5 – $25 per image by the big image libraries, which is why they don’t have time to spend researching AI and considering these nuances, and instead copy existing stereotypical images.

Tania Duarte

The images created by Emily Rand and Yasmine Boudiaf are being added to the Better Images of AI Free images library on a Creative Commons licence as part of the #NewImageNovember campaign. We hope you will enjoy discovering a new creative interpretation each day of November, and will be able to use and share them as we double the size of the library in one month. 

Sign up for our newsletter to get notified of new images here.


A big thank you to organisers, panellists and artists:

  • Jennifer Ding – Senior Researcher for Research Applications at The Alan Turing Institute
  • Yasmine Boudiaf – Fellow at Ada Lovelace Institute, recognised as one of ‘100 Brilliant Women in AI Ethics 2022’
  • Dr Tamsin Nooney – AI Research, BBC R&D
  • Emily Rand – illustrator and author of seven books and recognised by the Children’s Laureate, Lauren Child, to be featured in Drawing Words
  • Sam Nutt – Researcher & Data Ethicist, London Office of Technology and Innovation (LOTI)
  • Dr Tomasz Hollanek – Research Fellow, Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence
  • Laura Purseglove – Producer and Curator at Science Gallery London
  • Dr Robert Elliot-Smith – Director of AI and Data Science at Digital Catapult
  • Tania Duarte – Founder, We and AI and Better Images of AI

Also many thanks to the We and Al team, who volunteered as facilitators to make this workshop possible: 

  • Medina Bakayeva, UCL master’s student in cyber policy & AI governance, communications background
  • Marissa Ellis, Founder of, Inclusion Strategist & Speaker @diversily
  • Valena Reich, MPhil in Ethics of AI, Gates Cambridge scholar-elect, researcher at We and AI
  • Ismael Kherroubi Garcia FRSA, Founder and CEO of Kairoi, AI Ethics & Research Governance
  • Dr Peter Rees was project manager for the workshop

And a final appreciation for our partners: LOTI, the Science Gallery London, and London Data Week, who made this possible.

Related article from BIoAI blog: ‘What do you think AI looks like?’:

Open Call for Artists | Apply by 25th September

A! x Design Open call poster - We now invite Artists from EU and affiliated countries to join the Open Call

We and AI have teamed up with AIxDesign to commission three artists to encourage a better understanding of AI. Thanks to AI4Media’s support, each of the successful artists will be offered a €1,500 stipend for their contributions. The resulting images will be added to the Better Images of AI gallery for free and public use.

The main aim is to create a set of imagery that avoids perpetuating unhelpful myths about artificial intelligence (AI) by inviting artists from different backgrounds to develop better images while tackling questions such as:

  • Is the image representing a particular part of the technology or is it trying to tell a wider story?
  • Does it help people understand the technology and is it an accurate representation?

Each commissioned artist will work independently to create images, meeting two times with the project team to present concepts, ask questions, and receive feedback as we iterate towards the final images.

If you find this challenge exciting, take a look at the 🔗open call and apply by 25th September (midnight, CET)!

The wonderful team at AIxDESIGN are also running a series of info sessions throughout September in case you want to know more:

  • 7th September, 6pm CET / 12pm EST / 9am PST
  • 14th September, 11am CET / 6pm Philippines
  • 21st September, 6pm CET / 12pm EST / 9am PST

To join one of the info sessions, follow the “Open call and application” button above and find the RSVP links under “Project timeline”.

Since 2021, We and AI have been curating informative and engaging images through the Better Images of AI project. Better Images of AI challenges common misconceptions about AI, thereby enabling more fruitful discussions. Our continued public engagement initiatives and research have shown that images for responsible and explainable AI are still hard to come by, and we always welcome artists to help solve this problem. The challenges posed in the open call result from research conducted in collaboration with AI4Media and funded by AHRC.

AIxDESIGN are a self-organised community of over 8,000 computationally curious people who work in the open and are dedicated to conducting critical AI design research for people (not profit). We warmly welcome their alliance, and their continued work informing AI with feminist thought and a philosophy of care.

We also applaud AI4Media’s efforts not only to encourage and enable the development and adoption of AI systems across media industries, but also to engage with how the media can better represent AI.

Image by Alan Warburton / © BBC / Better Images of AI / Nature / CC-BY 4.0

Illustrating Data Hazards

A person with their hands on a laptop keyboard is looking at something happening over their screen with a worried expression. They are white, have shoulder length dark hair and wear a green t-shirt. The overall image is illustrated in a warm, sketchy, cartoon style. Floating in front of the person are three small green illustrations representing different industries, which is what they are looking at. On the left is a hospital building, in the middle is a bus, and on the right is a siren with small lines coming off it to indicate that it is flashing or making noise. Between the person and the images representing industries is a small character representing artificial intelligence made of lines and circles in green and red (like nodes and edges on a graph) who is standing with its ‘arms’ and ‘legs’ stretched out, and two antenna sticking up. A similar patten of nodes and edges is on the laptop screen in front of the person, as though the character has jumped out of their screen. The overall image makes it look as though the person is worried the AI character might approach and interfere with one of the industry icons.

We are delighted to start releasing some useful new images donated by the Data Hazards project into our free image library. The images are stills from an animated video explaining the project, and offer a refreshing take on illustrating AI and data bias. They take an effective and creative approach to making visible the role of the data scientist and the impact of algorithms, and the project behind the images uses visuals in order to improve data science itself. Project leaders Dr Nina Di Cara and Dr Natalie Zelenka share some background on Data Hazards labels, and the inspiration behind the animation behind the new images.

Data science has the potential to do so much for us. We can use it to identify new diseases, streamline services, and create positive change in the world. However, there have also been many examples of ways that data science has caused harm. Often this harm is not intended, but its weight falls on those who are the most vulnerable and marginalised. 

Often too, these harms are preventable. Testing datasets for bias, talking to communities affected by technology or changing functionality would be enough to stop people from being harmed. However, data scientists in general are not well trained to think about ethical issues, and even though there are other fields that have many experts on data ethics, it is not always easy for these groups to intersect. 

The Data Hazards project was developed by Dr Nina Di Cara and Dr Natalie Zelenka in 2021, and aims to make it easier for people from any discipline to talk together about data science harms, which we call Data Hazards. These Hazards are in the form of labels. Like chemical hazards, we want Data Hazards to make people stop and think about risk, not to stop using data science at all. 

An person is illustrated in a warm, cartoon-like style in green. They are looking up thoughtfully from the bottom left at a large hazard symbol in the middle of the image. The Hazard symbol is a bright orange square tilted 45 degrees, with a black and white illustration of an exclamation mark in the middle where the exclamation mark shape is made up of tiny 1s and 0s like binary code. To the right-hand side of the image a small character made of lines and circles (like nodes and edges on a graph) is standing with its ‘arms’ and ‘legs’ stretched out, and two antenna sticking up. It faces off to the right-hand side of the image.
Yasmin Dwiputri & Data Hazards Project / Better Images of AI / Managing Data Hazards / CC-BY 4.0

By making it easier for us all to talk about risks, we believe we are more likely to see them early and have a chance at preventing them. The project is open source, so anyone can suggest new or improved labels which mean that we can keep responding to new and changing ethical landscapes in data science. 

The project has now been running for nearly two years and in that time we have had input from over 100 people on what the Hazard labels should be, and what safety precautions should be suggested for each of them. We are now launching Version 1.0 with newly designed labels and explainer animations! 

Chemical hazards are well known for their striking visual icons, which many of us see day-to-day on bottles in our homes. By having Data Hazard labels, we wanted to create similar imagery that would communicate the message of each of the labels. For example, how can we represent ‘Reinforces Existing Bias’ (one of the Hazard labels) in a small, relatively simple image? 


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Image of the ‘Reinforces Existing Bias’ Data Hazard label

We also wanted to create some short videos to describe the project, that included a data scientist character interacting with ‘AI’ and had the challenge of deciding how to create a better image of AI than the typical robot. We were very lucky to work with illustrator and animator Yasmin Dwiputri, and Vanessa Hanschke who is doing a PhD at the University of Bristol in understanding responsible AI through storytelling. 

We asked Yasmin to share some thoughts from her experience working on the project:

“The biggest challenge was creating an AI character for the films. We wanted to have a character that shows the dangers of data science, but can also transform into doing good. We wanted to stay away from portraying AI as a humanoid robot and have a more abstract design with elements of neural networks. Yet, it should still be constructed in a way that would allow it to move and do real-life actions.

We came up with the node monster. It has limbs which allow it to engage with the human characters and story, but no facial expressions. Its attitude is portrayed through its movements, and it appears in multiple silly disguises. This way, we could still make him lovable and interesting, but avoid any stereotypes or biases.

As AI is becoming more and more present in the animation industry, it is creating a divide in the animation community. While some people are praising the endless possibilities AI could bring, others are concerned it will also replace artistic expressions and human skills.

The Data Hazard Project has given me a better understanding of the challenges we face even before AI hits the market. I believe animation productions should be aware of the impact and dangers AI can have, before only speaking of innovation. At the same time, as creatives, we need to learn more about how AI, if used correctly, and newer methods could improve our workflow.”

Yasmin Dwiputri

Now that we have the wonderful resources created we have been able to release them on our website and will be using them for training, teaching and workshops that we run as part of the project. You can view the labels and the explainer videos on the Data Hazards website. All of our materials are licensed as CC-BY 4.0 and so can be used and re-used with attribution. 

We’re also really excited to see some on the Better Images of AI website, and hope they will be helpful to others who are trying to represent data science and AI in their work. A crucial part of AI ethics is ensuring that we do not oversell or exaggerate what AI can do, and so the way we visualise images of AI is hugely important to the perception of AI by the public and being able to do ethical data science! 

Cover image by Yasmin Dwiputri & Data Hazards Project / Better Images of AI / AI across industries / CC-BY 4.0

Handmade, Remade, Unmade A.I.

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.

The Journey of Alina Constantin’s Art

Alina’s image, Handmade A.I., was one of the first additions to the Better Images of AI repository. The description affixed to the image on the site outlines its ‘alternative redefinition of AI’, bringing back into play the elements of human interaction which are so frequently excluded from discussions of the tech. Yet now, a few months on from the introduction of the image to the site, Alina’s work itself has undergone some ‘alternative redefinition’. This blog post explores the journey of this particular image, from the details of its conception to its numerous uses since: How has the image itself been changed, adapted in significance, semantically used? 

Alina Constantin is a multicultural game designer, artist and organiser whose work focuses on unearthing human-sized stories out of large systems. For this piece, some of the principles of machine learning like interpretation, classification, and prioritisation were encoded as the more physical components of human interaction: ‘hands, mouths and handwritten typefaces’, forcing us to consider our relationship to technology differently. We caught up with Alina to discuss further the process (and meaning) behind the work.

What have been the biggest challenges in creating Better Images of AI?

Representing AI comes with several big challenges. The first is the ongoing inundation of our collective imagination with skewed imagery, falsely representing these technologies in practice, in the name of simplification, sensationalism, and our human impulse towards personification. The second challenge is the absence of any single agreed-upon definition of AI, and obviously the complexity of the topic itself.

What was your approach to this piece?

My approach was largely an intricate process of translation. To stay focused upon the ‘why of A.I’ in practical terms, I chose to focus on elements of speech, also wanting to highlight the human sources of our algorithms in hand drawing letters and typefaces. 

I asked questions, and selected imagery that could be both evocative and different. For the back side of the cards, not visible in this image, I bridged the interpretive logic of tarot with the mapping logic of sociology, choosing a range of 56 words from varying fields starting with A/I to allow for more personal and specific definitions of A.I. To take this idea further, I then mapped the idea to 8 different chess moves, extending into a historical chess puzzle that made its way into a theatrical card deck, which you can play with here. You can see more of the process of this whole project here.

This process of translating A.I via my own artist’s tool set of stories/gameplay was highly productive, requiring me to narrow down my thinking to components of A.I logic which could be expressed and understood by individuals with or without a background in tech. The importance of prototyping, and discussing these ideas with audiences both familiar and unfamiliar with AI helped me validate and adjust my own understanding and representation–a crucial step for all of us to assure broader representation within the sector.

So how has Alina’s Better Image been used? Which meanings have been drawn out, and how has the image been redefined in practice? 

One implementation of ‘Handmade A.I.’, on the website of one of our affiliated organisations We and AI, remains largely aligned with the artist’s reading of it. According to We and AI, the image was chosen due to its re-centring of the human within the AI conversation: the human hands still hold the cards, humanity are responsible for their shuffling, their design (though not necessarily completely in control of which ones are dealt.) Human agency continues to direct the technology, not the other way round. As a key tenet of the organisation, and a key element of the image identified by Alina, this all adds up., use of Alina’s image

A similar usage by the Universität Hamburg, to accompany a lecture on responsibility in the AI field, follows a similar logic. The additional slant of human agency considered from a human rights perspective again broadens Alina’s initial image. The components of human interaction which she has featured expand to a more universal representation of not just human input to these technologies but human culpability–the blood, in effect, is on our hands. 

Universität Hamburg use of Alina’s image

Another implementation, this time by the Digital Freedom Fund, comes with an article concerning the importance of our language around these new technologies. Deviating slightly from the visual, and more into the semantics of artificial intelligence, the use may at first seem slightly unrelated. However, as the content of the article develops, concerns surrounding the ‘technocentrism’ rather than anthropocentrism in our discussions of AI become a focal point. Alina’s image captures the need to reclaim language surrounding these technologies, placing the cards firmly back in human hands. The article directly states, ‘Every algorithm is the result of a desire expressed by a person or a group of persons’ (Meyer, 2022.) Technology is not neutral. Like a pack of playing cards, it is always humanity which creates and shuffles the deck. 

Digital Freedom Fund use of Alina’s image

This is not the only instance in which Alina’s image has been used to illustrate the relation of AI and language. The question “Can AI really write like a human?” seems to be on everyone’s lips, and ‘Handmade A.I.’ , with its deliberately humanoid typeface, its natural visual partner. In a blog post for LSE, Marco Lehner (of BR AI+) discusses employment of a GPT-3 bot, and whilst allowing for slightly more nuance, ultimately reaches a similar crux– human involvement remains central, no matter how much ‘automation’ we attempt.

Even as ‘better’ images such as Alina’s are provided, we still see the same stock images used over and over again. Issues surrounding the speed and need for images in journalistic settings, as discussed by Martin Bryant in our previous blog post, mean that people will continue to almost instinctively reach for the ‘easy’ option. But when asked to explain what exactly these images are providing to the piece, there’s often a marked silence. This image of a humanoid robot is meaningless– Alina’s images are specific; they deal in the realities of AI, in a real facet of the technology, and are thus not universally applicable. They relate to considerations of human agency, responsible AI practice, and don’t (unlike the stock photos) act to the detriment of public understanding of our tech future.

Branching Out: Understanding an Algorithm at a Glance

A window of three images. On the right is a photo of a big tree in a green field in a field of grass and a bright blue sky. The two on the left are simplifications created based on a decision tree algorithm. The work illustrates a popular type of machine learning model: the decision tree. Decision trees work by splitting the population into ever smaller segments. I try to give people an intuitive understanding of the algorithm. I also want to show that models are simplifications of reality, but can still be useful, or in this case visually pleasing. To create this I trained a model to predict pixel colour values, based on an original photograph of a tree.

The impetus for the most recent contributions to our image repository was described by the artist as promoting understanding of present AI systems. Rens Dimmendaal, Principal Data Scientist at GoDataDriven, discussed with Better Images of AI the need to cut through all the unnecessary complication of ideas within the AI field; a goal which he believes is best achieved through visual media. 

Discussions of the ‘black box’ of AI are not exactly new, and the recent calls for explainability statements to accompany new tech from Best Practice AI are certainly attempting to address the problem at some level. Tim Gordon writes of the greater ‘transparency’ required in the field, as well as the implicit acknowledgement that any wider impacts have been considered. Yet, for the broader spectrum of individuals whose lives are already being influenced by AI technologies, an extensive, jargon-filled document on the various inputs and outputs of any single algorithm is unlikely to provide much relief. 

This is where Dimmendaal comes in: to provide ‘understanding at a glance’ (and also to ‘make a pretty picture’, in his own words). The artist began with the example of the decision tree. All present tutorials on this topic, in his view, use datasets which only make the concept more difficult to understand–have a look at ‘decision tree titanic’ for a clear illustration of this.  Another explanation was provided by r2d3. Yet, for Rens, this still employed an overly complicated ‘usecase’. Hence, this selection of images.

Rens cites his inspiration for this particular project as Roger Johansson’s recreation of the ‘Mona Lisa’, using genetic programming. In the original, Johansson attempts to reproduce the piece with a combination of semi-transparent polygons and an evolutionary algorithm, gradually mutating the initial randomly generated polygons to move closer and closer to the original image. Rens recreated elements of this code as a starting point, then with the addition of the triptych format and implementation of a decision tree style algorithm made the works his own. 

Rens Dimmendaal / Better Images of AI / Man / CC-BY 4.0

In keeping with his motivations–making a ‘pretty picture’, but chiefly contributing to the greater transparency of AI methodologies–Dimmendaal elected the triptych to present his outputs. The mutation of the image is shown as a fluid, interactive process, morphing across the triptych from left to right, from abstraction to the original image itself. Getting a glimpse inside the algorithm in this manner allows for the ‘understanding at a glance’ which the artist wished to provide–the image shifts before our eyes, from the initial input to the final output. 

Rens Dimmendaal & David Clode / Better Images of AI / Fish / CC-BY 4.0

Rens Dimmendaal & Jesse Donoghoe / Better Images of AI / Car / CC-BY 4.0

Engaging with the decision tree was not only a practical decision, related to the prior lack of adequate tutorial, but also an artistic one. As Dimmendaal explains, ‘applying a decision tree to an actual tree was just too poetic an opportunity to let slide.’ We think it paid off… 

Dimmendaal has worked with numerous algorithmic systems previously (including: k-means, nearest neighbours, linear regression, svm) but cites this particular combination of genetic programming, decision trees and the triptych format as producing the nicest outcome. More of his work can be found both in our image repository, and on his personal website.

Whether or not a detailed understanding of algorithms is something you are interested in, you can input your own images to the tool Rens created for this project here and play around with making your own decision tree art. What do images relevant to your industry, product or interests look like seen through this process? Make sure to tag Better Images of AI in your AI artworks, and credit Rens. We’re excited to see what you come up with!

More from Better Images: Twitter | LinkedIn

More from the artist: Twitter | Linkedin

Humans (back) in the Loop

Pictures of Artificial Intelligence often remove the human side of the technology completely, removing all traces of human agency. Better Images of AI seeks to rectify this. Yet, picturing the AI workforce is complex and nuanced. Our new images from Humans in the Loop attempt to present more of the positive side, as well as bringing the human back into the centre of AI’s global image. 

The ethicality of AI supply chains is not something newly brought under fire. Yet, separate from the material implications of its production, the ‘new digital assembly line’, which Mary L. Gray and Siddarth Suri explore in their book Ghost Work, holds a much more immediate (and largely unrecognised) human impact. In particular, the all-too-frequent exploitation characterising so-called ‘Clickwork’. Better Images of AI has recently coordinated with award-winning social enterprise Humans in the Loop to attempt to rectify this endemic removal of the human from discussions; with a focus on images concerning the AI supply chain, and the field of artificial intelligence more broadly.

‘Clickwork’, more appropriately referred to as ‘data work’ is an umbrella term, signifying a whole host of human involvements in AI production. One of the areas in which human input is most needed is that of data annotation, an activity that provides training data for Artificial Intelligence. What used to be considered “menial” and “low-skilled” work is today a nascent field with its own complexities and skills requirements,  involving extensive training. However, tasks such as this, often ‘left without definition and veiled from consumers who benefit from it’ (Gray & Suri, 2019), result in these individuals finding themselves relegated to the realm of “ghost work”.

While the nature of ‘ghost work’ is not inherently positive or negative, the resultant lack of protection which these data workers are subject to can produce some highly negative outcomes. Recently Time Magazine uncovered some practices which were not only being hidden, but deliberately misrepresented. The article collates testimonies from Sama employees, contracted as outsourced Facebook content moderators. These testimonials reveal a workplace characterised by ‘mental trauma, intimidation, and alleged suppression’. The article ultimately concludes that through the hidden quality of this sector of the supply chain, Facebook profits through exploitation, and through the exportation of trauma away from the West and instead toward the developing world.

So how can we help to mitigate these associated risks of ‘ghost work’ within the AI supply chain? It starts with making the invisible, visible. As Noopur Raval (2021) puts it, to collectively ‘identify and interrupt the invisibility of work’ constitutes an initial step towards undermining the ‘deliberate construction and maintenance of “screens of invisibility”‘. To counter the prevalent images of AI, circulated as an extension of ‘AI imperialism’ within the West- an idea further engaged with by Karen Hao (2022)– which remove any semblance of human agency or production, and conceal the potential for human exploitation, we were keen to show the people involved in creating the technology.

These people are very varied and not just the homogenous Silicon Valley types portrayed in popular media. They include silicon miners, programmers, data scientists, product managers, data workers, content moderators, managers and many others from all around the globe; these are the people who are the intelligence behind AI. Our new images from Humans in the Loop attempt to challenge wholly negative depictions of data work, whilst simultaneously bringing attention to the exploitative practices and employment standards within the fields of data labelling and annotation. There is still, of course, work to do, as the Founder, Iva Gumnishika detailed in the course of our discussion with her. The glossy, more optimistic look at data work which these images present must not be taken as licence to excuse the ongoing poor working conditions, lack of job stability, or exposure to damaging or traumatic content which many of these individuals are still facing.

As well meeting our aim of portraying the daily work at Humans in the Loop and to showcase the ‘different faces behind [their] projects’, our discussions with the Founder gave us the opportunity to explore and communicate some of the potential positive outcomes of roles within the supply chain. These include the greater flexibility which employment such as data annotation might allow for, in contrast to the more precarious side of gig-style working economies.

In order to harness the positive potential of new employment opportunities, especially those for displaced workers, Human in the Loop’s navigates major geopolitical factors impacting their employees (for example the Taliban government in Afghanistan, the embargoes on Syria, and more recently the war in Ukraine). Gumnishika also described issues connected with this brand of data work such as convincing ‘clients to pay dignified wages for something that they perceive as “low-value work”’ and attempting to avoid the ‘race to the bottom’ within this arena. Another challenge is in allowing the workers themselves to acknowledge their central role in the industry, and what impact their work is having. When asked what she would identify as the central issue within present AI supply chain structures, her emphatic response was that ‘AI is not as artificial as you would think!’. The cloaking of the hundreds of thousands of people working to verify and annotate the data, all in the name of selling products as “fully autonomous”, and possessing “superhuman intelligence”, only acts to the detriment of its very human components. By including more of the human faces behind AI, as a completely normal/necessary part of it, Gumnishka hopes to trigger the unveiling of AI’s hidden labour inputs. In turn, by sparking widespread recognition of the complexity, value, and humanity behind work such as data annotation and content moderation–as in the case of Sama– the ultimate goal is an overhaul of data workers’ employment conditions, wages and acknowledgement as a central part of AI futures. 

In our gallery we attempt to represent both sides of data work, and Max Gruber, another contributor to the Better Images of AI gallery, engages with the darker side of gig-work in greater depth through his work, included in our main gallery and below. It presents ‘clickworkers’ as they predominantly are currently – precariously paid workers in a digital gig economy, performing monotonous work for little to no compensation. His series of photographs depict 3D printed figures, stationed in front of their computers to the uncomfortable effect of quite literally illustrating the term “human resources”, as well as the rampant anonymity which perpetuates exploitation in the area. The figure below ‘Clickworker 3d-printed’ is captioned as ‘anonymized, almost dehumanised’, the obscuration of the face and identical ‘worker’ represented in the background of the image, all cementing the individual’s status as unacknowledged labour in the AI supply chain. 

Max Gruber / Better Images of AI / Clickworker 3d-printed / CC-BY 4.0

We can contrast this with the stories behind Human in the Loop’s employees.

Nacho Kamenov & Humans in the Loop / Better Images of AI / Data annotators labeling data / CC-BY 4.0

This image, titled ‘Data annotators labelling data’ immediately offers up two very real data workers, faces clear and contribution to the production of AI clearly outlined. The accompanying caption details the function of data annotation, when it is needed, what purpose it serves; there is no masking, no hidden element to their work, as previously.

Gumnishka shares that some of the people who appear on the images have continued their path as migrants and refugees to other European countries, for example the young woman in the blog cover photo. Others have other jobs (one of the pictures shows an architect although now having found work in her field, continues to come to training and is part of the community. For others like the woman in the colourful scarf, it becomes their main source of livelihood and they are happy to pursue it as a career.

Through adding the human faces back into the discussions surrounding artificial intelligence we see not just the Silicon Valley or business-suited tech workers we occasionally see in pictures, but the vast armies of workers across the world, many of them women, many of them outside of the West.

The image below is titled ‘A trainer instructing a data annotator on how to label images’. This helps address the lack of clarity on what exactly datawork entails, and the level of training, expertise and skill required to carry it out. This image engages directly with this idea, showing some of the extensive training required in visible action, in this case by the Founder herself.

a young woman sitting in front of a computer in an office while another woman standing next to her is pointing at something on her screen
Nacho Kamenov & Humans in the Loop / Better Images of AI / A trainer instructing a data annotator on how to label images / CC-BY 4.0 (Also used as cover image)

Although these images do not of course accurately represent the experience of all data workers, in combination with the increasing awareness of conditions enabled by contributions such as the recent Times article, or the work by Gray and Suri, by Kate Crawford in her book Atlas of AI, and with the counterbalance provided by Max Gruber’s images, the addition of the photographs from Humans in the Loop provides inspiration for others. 

We hope to keep adding images of the real people behind AI, especially those most invisible at present. If you work in AI, could you send us your pictures, and how could you show the real people behind AI? Who is still going unnoticed or unheard? Get involved with the project here:

Better Images of AI’s first Artist: Alan Warburton

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

In working towards providing better images of AI, BBC R&D are commissioning some artists to create stock pictures for open licence use. Working with artists to find more meaningful and helpful yet visually compelling ways to represent AI has been at the core of the project.

The first artist to complete his commission is London-based Alan Warburton. Alan is a multidisciplinary artist exploring the impact of software on contemporary visual culture. His hybrid practice feeds insight from commercial work in post-production studios into experimental arts practice, where he explores themes including digital labour, gender and representation, often using computer-generated images (CGI). 

His artwork has been exhibited internationally at venues including BALTIC, Somerset House, Ars Electronica, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Austrian Film Museum, HeK Basel, Photographers Gallery, London Underground, Southbank Centre and Channel 4. Alan is currently doing a practice-based PhD at Birkbeck, London looking at how commercial software influences contemporary visual cultures.

Warburton’s first encounters with AI are likely familiar to us all through the medium of disaster and science fiction films that presented assorted ideas of the technology to broad audiences through the late 1990s and early 2000s. 

As an artist, Warburton says it is over the past few years that technological examples have jumped out for him to help create his work. “In terms of my everyday working life, I suppose that rendering – the process of computing photorealistic images – has always been an incredibly slow and complex process but in the last four or five years various pieces of software that are part of the rendering  process have begun to incorporate AI technologies in increasing degrees,” he says. “AI noise reduction or things like rotoscoping are affected as the very mundane labour-intensive activities involved in the work of an animator and visual effects artists or image manipulator have been sped up. 

“AI has also affected me in the way it has affected everyone else through smart phone technology and through the way I interact with services provided by energy companies or banks or insurance people. Those are the areas that are more obscured, obtuse or mysterious because you don’t really see the systems. But with image processing software I have an insight into the reality of how AI is being used.” 

Warburton’s knowledge of software and AI tools has ensured that he is able to critically analyse which tools are beneficial. “I have been quite discriminatory in the way I use AI tools. There’s workflow tools that speed things up as well as image libraries and 3D model libraries. But the latter ones provide politically charged content even though it’s not positioned as such. Presets available in software will give you white skinned caucasian bodies and allow you to photorealistically simulate people but, for example, there’s hair simulation algorithms that default to caucasian hair. There’s this variegated tapestry of AI software tools, libraries, databases that you have to be discriminatory in the use of or be aware of the limitations and bias and voice those criticisms.” 

The artist’s personal use of technology is also careful and thought through. “I don’t have my face online,” he says. “There’s no content of me speaking online, I don’t have photographs online. That’s slightly unusual for someone who works as an artist and has necessary public engagement as part of my job, but I’m very aware that anything I put online can be used as training data –  if it’s public domain (materials available to the public as a whole, especially those not subject to copyright or other legal restrictions) then it’s fair game.

“Whilst my image is unlikely to be used for nefarious ends or contribute directly to a problematic database, there’s a principle that I stick to and I have stuck to for a very long time. There’s some control over my data, my presence and my image that I like to police although I am aware that my data is used in ways that I don’t understand. Keeping control over that data requires labour, you have to go through all of the options in consent forms and carefully select what you are willing to give away and not. Being discriminatory about how your data is used to construct powerful systems of control and AI is a losing game. You have to some extent to accept that your participation with these systems relies on you giving them access to your data.”

When it comes to addressing the issues of AI representation in the wider world, Warburton can see the issues that need to be solved and acknowledges that there is no easy answer. “Over the past five or ten years we have had waves of visual interpretations of our present moment,” he says. “Unfortunately many of those have reached back into retro tropes. So we’ve had vaporwave and post-internet aesthetics and many different Tumblr vibes trying to frame the present visual culture or the technological now but using retro imagery that seemed regressive. 

“We don’t have a visual language for a dematerialised culture.”

“We don’t have a visual language for a dematerialised culture. It’s very difficult to represent the culture that comes through the conduit of the smartphone. I think that’s why people have resorted to these analogue metaphors for culture. We may have reached the end of these attempts to describe data or AI culture, we can’t use those old symbols anymore and yet we still don’t have a popular understanding of how to describe them. I don’t know if it’s even possible to build a language that describes the way data works. Resorting to metaphor seems like a good way of solving that problem but this also brings in the issue of abstraction and that’s another problem.”

Alan’s experience and interest in this field of work have led to some insightful and recognisable visualisations of how AI operates and what is involved, which can act as inspiration for other artists with less knowledge of the technology. Future commissions from BBC R&D for the Better Images of AI project will enable other artists to use their different perspectives to help evolve this new visual language for dematerialised culture.