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Even better than the real thing? Time to label AI imagery

Marcus Jaye
04 April 2023

When the image of Pope Francis in his iceberg white puffer coat went viral last week you could be mistaken for thinking he had a new stylist. With matching white zucchetto, it had the entire Twittersphere guessing who the brand was. Moncler? Balenciaga? Papal?! 

It turned out the image wasn’t real. It was created using Midjourney, an artificial intelligence tool that can generate extremely realistic images.

The Pope got some street cred, while the rest of us started to question everything. He made a statement following the furore saying emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning could be beneficial to society as long as they respect human dignity. Amen.

A and I are the two letters on everybody’s lips right now. ChatGPT has pushed AI to the front pages of newspapers and websites with every scribe worried about being replaced.

Launched in November 2022 and bankrolled by Microsoft, GPT stands for Generative Pre-trained Transformer and is a kind of computer language model that relies on deep learning techniques to produce human-like text based on inputs. OpenAI, the producer of ChatGPT, is an AI research and deployment company. It says, “Our mission is to ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all of humanity.”

Further protecting humanity, Elon Musk and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak have added their names to an open letter titled ‘Pause Giant AI Experiments: An Open Letter’, posted on the website of the Future of Life (FLI) Institute. The letter calls for immediate pause for at least six months the training of AI systems more powerful than GPT-4. Do they know something we don’t know?

Ironically, it is the home of the Holy Father that has put the first ban on ChatGPT. Italy has become the first Western country to block the advanced chatbot. Citing data-protection, it said there were privacy concerns and it would ban and investigate OpenAI "with immediate effect”. The Italian data-protection authority said OpenAI had 20 days to say how it would address the watchdog's concerns, under penalty of a fine of €20 million ($21.7m) or up to 4% of annual revenues.

For an industry heavily reliant on imagery and its slightly murky history of retouching and Photoshopping, it does raise the question again about images needing to be labelled as ‘real’ or ‘generated’ or ‘altered’?

Levi’s has chosen to use AI-generated models recently. For fashion brands, particularly those with high volumes of different products, AI-generated models will be cheaper and faster; the need for a studio, physical photographer and stylist redundant. The speed from sample to sale shortened. There could even become a time when a consumer could select to see all the items on their favourite ‘model’. It could even do away with samples altogether and the product only being made when ordered by a physical consumer to wear. Fashion imagery has always promoted distortion in the quest for perfection, and AI seems like it could make everything easier, more ‘real’ and more frequent.

In 2015, the French national assembly passed legislation called the Photoshop law. The law requires all Photoshop retouching that is performed on models be clearly labelled. Photoshop is regulated by requiring a disclosure when publishing an altered image that has been modified in such a way that it “makes the silhouette narrower or wider” of a model. Norway and Denmark have or are proposing similar legal requirements with regards to labelling retouching particularly on social media and imagery promoted to younger people and protecting against unachievable body images.

In 2022, the UK government made steps to create a new law officially known as the ‘Digitally Altered Body Image Bill’, but it will only be applicable to sponsored posts in an effort to enforce greater transparency online and combat body dysmorphia. The bill put forward is requesting a logo to be displayed on any digitally-altered images of bodies.

AI will require lawmakers to go further and many of these countries are starting to look at changes to incorporate the latest technological advances. Civil servant eggheads will be looking into this closely.

AI imagery is in its nascent stage, but it’s here and it’s going to be big. It looks really good, and the Pope can testify. It feels like this could be something we are less aware of unless it is legally binding to point it out. Real or not, trust is paramount, we have to believe what we see.

Main image: Pope Francis in white puffer coat created by Pablo Xavier using Midjourney.

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