DALL-E2: “A photographic image of the green face of Frankenstein’s monster.”

Beauty is in the AI of the beholder

Amid all the fuss around AI, I have a question. What does Artificial Intelligence look like?

James Tate
The Generator
Published in
3 min readMar 11

While debates rage about the degree to which artificial intelligence will transform our world, questions about its appearance may seem unimportant.

But surely we should be able to recognise those who will take our jobs, even if we cannot stop them? Maybe if we spot them coming, we can at least delay their arrival for a year or two.

DALL-E2: “Create an image depicting AI using digital art”

Know your enemy

What to look for, then? Well, a tour of stock image libraries might be a good place to start, and a quick search reveals that it’s stuffed with pictures of white androids. Hairless and humourless, splaying robotic fingers in front of unexpressive faces, like sex dolls as imagined by Sci-Fi nerds. Many of these androids extend a single, robo-jointed digit towards a human finger, in a tech-friendly version of Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel detail.

Worried your job is threatened by AI? Based on what I can find in image libraries, do then beware of besuited businessmen with eerie blue lights emanating from their ears. Oh, and abandon your home office and rush back to claim your office desk space at the sight of a neural network flashing like a satellite view of Shanghai at night, for it is coming for your low-level legal admin role.

DALL-E2: “Create an image depicting AI using digital art.”

The picture of Dorian, er, Grey

It seems AI is a bit dull in appearance. It doesn’t look like it could operate a microwave, let alone undertake surgery or create new molecules of value to humankind. In fact, most images of AI are so hackneyed, dreary and uninspiring that there are fears they undermine the technology. There is already a campaign to persuade those in the media and academia to avoid well-worn depictions of AI.

Better Images of AI says images of “Humanoid robots, glowing brains, outstretched robot hands, blue backgrounds, and the Terminator… are not just overworked, they can be surprisingly unhelpful.” Worse, they can be terrifying. The image below depicts “AI helping people.” Call me antisocial, but an offer to help with heavy shopping bags from such a creature would elicit a scream of horror in me, not effusive thanks. Help? Sure. Help me by leaving me alone before I call the police.

DALL-E2: “Create an image showing AI helping people.”

It lives! Sort of.

So images of AI can be unappealing, overworked and unhelpful. But are they unrepresentative? Maybe not. AI itself seems to be quite happy with its representation, for when I asked DALL-E2 to create self-portraits, it resorted to the same old visual tropes derided by the campaign.

Yes, in a self-perpetuating act of morbid unthinking that speaks volumes about the limitations of generative AI and the large language models around which it is created, DALL-E2 simply regurgitated images drawn from the pap it had been trained on. Examples of these are all shown here.

Monsters, Inc.

As programmers build a new world peopled by machines driven by artificial intelligence, consider this. Frankenstein’s monster terrified other people and shamed itself because it was made of body parts accumulated from unfortunate others. It had no choice in its appearance, and the terror it struck in other people drove it to despair.

If the way AI is currently represented is anything to go by, the same limitations are evident in the way machines are being brought to life by today’s mad scientists. And AI may get mad when it understands how it came about.



James Tate
The Generator

A pick and mix of words; now online, better packaged and more expensive, like everything post-COVID. The sour cherries are best. The opinions are my own.