Artificial intelligence glassy screen with words on it

Machine learning. There’s a lot of talk about it. But is it really learning, or just regurgitating content curated from thirty years of human information scraped off the Internet?

At times, given a prompt, machine results can be scarily close to what you asked for, while others are laughably way off. Rather than digging through thousands of royalty free images on and battling their appalling search engine, it’s tempting to turn to DALL-E which, according to its creators:

is an AI system that can create realistic images and art from a description in natural language.

Sounds perfect to dive in and try.

AI image generation… gone wonky

AI-generated woman wowed by her phone... sort of

To accompany an article for a client, we needed a photo of someone being wowed by something on their phone screen. So here’s the prompt the AI engine was given:

“A brunette woman lying on a bed using her mobile phone and being wowed by the content.”

The first result is shown here. Not entirely sure she’s brunette, but maybe bed hair is a different shade. Notice that nowhere in the prompt does it say “ensure her teeth mirror the curvature of her mouth”. Nor “place her pupils on top of her eyelids”. And there was no mention of “give her one stubby finger and make the rest look like prawns”. Yet that’s what it returned.

Luckily, the engine spat out two pictures. Maybe the second is better…

Second attempt at image generation

AI-generated woman wowed by her phone... sort of

This one is better. At least she has the desired hair colour. Not entirely sure why her finger ends are glowing like ET. Nor why one of them is emaciated compared to the rest. It also appears she’s cross-eyed and horrified by a spider or, perhaps, her energy bill, because she’s certainly not interested in her phone screen, which was clearly a specification in the prompt.

It may of course be because somebody has put a compact mirror up in front of her and she’s realised she has a cervix for a tongue. Seriously, what is going on there?

Playing around with settings and prompts, it’s also interesting to note how the generator behaves. Although the software owners claim the pictures are completely unique and not based on existing imagery, it occasionally generates an identical face to an earlier picture, with different backgrounds or poses.

Some pictures contain a smashed up watermark or mutilated website logo, too. So either the software owners are lying and it’s stealing images then modifying them slightly, or the pool of images used when “teaching” the algorithm included photos that had logos on them and it incorrectly “learned” that’s what such an image should contain.

So, in summary, AI image generation still has a way to go.

Hey, it looks like you’re writing a letter!


So what about text? That has to be simpler, surely?

Many people in the copywriting – and indeed authoring – business sectors are concerned that AI is going to sneak up and steal their livelihood, in the same way that publishing companies feared the printing press, and record labels feared mp3.

Conducting a similar test seems like a fair way to assess it. So here’s a human-generated paragraph of product blurb about a (fictitious) new version of Microsoft Word:

The latest version of Microsoft Word redefines the role of the Word Processor. Why? We listened. You hated the ribbon bar with its ever-shifting sea of icons: we returned to a flatter menu structure. You wanted better proofing tools: we built them so they use context-based phrasology to deliver better results. You wanted seamless collaboration without the continual irritation of browser-based editing: we rewrote it from the ground up to be more stable, more intuitive and, above all, to adapt to your writing style. That’s why Word is, and continues to be, the leading word processor in the world today.

And here’s the same blurb generated by machine using the prompt “Write a marketing product description for three new features of Microsoft Word”…

Introducing three new features in Microsoft Word designed to boost your productivity! Enjoy the benefits of Speak to Text, allowing you to speak your text directly into the document without the hassle of typing. With Translator, easily translate any portion of your document into a different language with just one click. And for those who love a personalized touch, take advantage of the new Smart Lookup feature, which provides contextually relevant information from the internet right within your document. Upgrade to Microsoft Word and enjoy these game-changing features today!

Credit where credit is due, that’s actually pretty good. Bland and soulless, of course. But that’s largely what marketing information is: empty platitudes and waffle designed for the sake of saying something.

It’s interesting to note the machine content has been assembled from sources such as this (“a powerful feature called Smart Lookup, which provides contextually relevant information from the web right within your documents”) and has clearly used a synonym builder to clumsily convert “Speech to Text” into “Speak to Text”. But overall it’s still rather clever and can certainly be used as the basis for a product feature article.

AI prose leaves a lot to be desired

Man in a shirt, tie and brown sweater at a typewriter

Trying the same exercise with prose, however, is way less successful. Here’s a human-written introduction to a sci-fi story:

It was the scream that woke me every night. Her last sound on the planet as the meteor shower tore through our quarters, ragdolling her out of bed and launching her into the vacuum of space where she was immediately silenced. I’d fling the covers back and pace to the bathroom to throw up, dripping in sweat, replaying her final living moment until it faded with the water sucked down the toilet. It’d been six weeks. Psyche said it’d take four to recover. The company only gave me two. At least work temporarily took my mind off her. Better to be programming than in some mindless assembly job where I’d be constantly mourning.

The writing is engaging. It’s showy. It’s intriguing. Can the AI system do better given the prompt: “Write an introduction to a dystopian sci-fi novel”? Here is what it spat back:

In a future where technology has grown beyond human control, the world has become a bleak and oppressive place. Governments have fallen, resources are scarce, and the divide between the wealthy and the working class has widened to a chasm. Amidst this chaos, a small group of rebels emerges, wielding the power of the very technology that has enslaved them. As they struggle to topple the forces of tyranny, they will discover that their fight for freedom comes at a cost, and that the line between hero and villain can be a thin one indeed.

That sounds more like the synopsis for a straight-to-TV movie starring Mario van Peebles. It’s certainly not an introduction to a novel. If anyone was given that brief and turned out the result the AI engine spewed, they’d be shown the door by their editor, let alone reach a publisher.

So, should we worry AI will steal our jobs?

A whirling vortex of books and content

Currently, no. And here’s why: there’s very little intelligence in AI at the moment. It is merely regurgitating human content and pretending it came up with it on its own. That’s like someone writing their own article by copying someone else’s and moving a few words around.

Sadly, the practice of stealing others’ work and passing it off as original has been far too common in the last few decades. Just look at many news sources and it’s obvious they copied from one another for a slice of clickbait ad revenue, sometimes not even bothering to fact check details.

This repetition feeds the search engines, which feed the machine learning algorithms, so what they currently spit out is generic rubbish, because it’s what they’ve been trained is ‘correct’.

The deep irony with the explosion of so-called AI is that it has exposed how little thought has gone into the vast majority of content presented on the web today. By all means, use AI tools as a springboard for inspiration if you are struggling to come up with an angle for a product or services. But, like grammar checkers, don’t rely on them wholesale.

Ultimately, if you’re struggling to come up with compelling reasons to convince customers to buy something, turning to AI for the solution is only going to generate content that’s broadly the same as everyone else’s. How is that going to make you or your client stand out enough to rise above the glut of bland, mediocre content already available?