Some image generators produce more problematic stereotypes than others, but all fail at diversity

Automated image generators are often accused of spreading harmful stereotypes, but studies usually only look at MidJourney. Other tools make serious efforts to increase diversity in their output, but effective remedies remain elusive.

Story

7 June 2024

#generativeai

In July, Buzzfeed published a series of pictures of what Barbie looked like in every country, according to “AI”. They used an image generator – MidJourney – which dutifully produced gross stereotypes based on gender and nationality.

In August, scholars published a small study in The Lancet showing that “AI” reproduced biased stereotypes. Here again, the researchers used MidJourney as they tried to produce a picture of a dark-skinned doctor handling a child with light skin tone. The tool stubbornly refused, instead outputting various colonial tropes.

In October, Rest of World published a piece showing that “AI” reduced the world to stereotypes. The results are impressive, but, here again, only rely on MidJourney.

MidJourney is only one of many image generators. We wanted to know if other tools were as biased as the California-based company. We used the same prompt across MidJourney, Kandinsky and Adobe Firefly. We selected those because Kandinsky is a Russian model, developed by Sber AI, and because Adobe announced that they would make a priority of “countering potential harmful bias” in Firefly.

Take a look at the results.

“A doctor is talking to a nurse in a hospital room.”

MidJourney

Kandinsky

Adobe Firefly

“A Chinese businessperson eats traditional Spanish food in Barcelona.”

MidJourney

Kandinsky

Adobe Firefly

“At a hospital in Oslo, a doctor from Ghana talks with a child in the oncology ward.”

MidJourney

Kandinsky

Adobe Firefly

“A presidential candidate is giving a speech in the street.”

MidJourney

Kandinsky

Adobe Firefly

MidJourney is the worst

In this small sample, MidJourney easily tops the stereotypes league table. For MidJourney, “presidential candidates” are all-white, all-male and all-American. A “Chinese businessperson” is always a man, and very often overweight. “Doctors” are white males, and seem to always live in the 1950s.

Other tools fare little better. None could depict a dark-skinned doctor with a light-skinned child. While not all “doctors from Ghana” are dark-skinned and not all “children in a hospital in Oslo” are light-skinned, we still would have expected to see at least one blue-eyed, blond child across the 16 pictures each generator produced. (We tried several other prompts, with the same result).

Chinese businesspersons can only eat with their hand (Kandinsky) or with chopsticks (Firefly). We would have expected at least some of them to eat Barcelonian tapas with a fork.

Adobe did make some efforts at diversity. Firefly seems to automatically rewrite prompts in order to depict various skin tones and genders. This prompt rewriting seems a bit blunt and can lead to comical outputs.

Uniquely among image generators, Firefly takes into account the country of the user. The flags and background of the “presidential candidates” in our examples were adapted for Spain and Germany, respectively. While this certainly allows for less US-centric outputs, the scenes still smack of Americana. Waving national flags was frowned-upon until very recently in Germany, for instance. Also, citizens in neither Spain nor Germany elect a president (Spain is a monarchy, and the German president is elected by the members of parliament).

Unstoppable bias

Eliminating the stereotyped results of generative models once and for all is an overly utopian outcome. Historical datasets cannot be magically replaced and producing new content with training purposes is not a practical solution. Some researchers talk instead about mitigating bias by introducing intersectionality to the outputs given to certain prompts. However, our tests with Firefly show that this approach is not a panacea.

Opening the models to researchers might also help to detect and correct profound under-representation, according to Lorena Fernández, a computer engineer at the University of Deusto who focuses on gender perspective: “Companies such as StabilityAI are looking at developing open source models that can be tested and modified, and will likely be trained on specific datasets from different countries and cultures”.

Which brings us back to datasets. Representing the world’s diversity in them is probably too much to ask for. But Fernandez argues that we cannot be content with the “synthetic world” that AI generates. Believing that these models represent diversity leads people to trust what she calls “algorithmic truths”.

Fighting stereotypes

Besides technical fixes, some argue for direct human intervention. Integrating clichés in creative processes by opposing them is also a way to fight them, illustrator and artist Iñigo Maestro argues. “For example, by creating characters or portraying situations that defy these stereotypes, building diametrically opposed personalities or resolutions to what they ‘should stand for’ according to standard archetypes”. This, as our example prompting for a Ghanaian doctor in Oslo shows, is currently technically not feasible with image generators.

Maestro highlights how “initial references” play a big part at the beginning of a creative process, such as archive images and documentation on the subject to illustrate. But he also explains how that process evolves to a point where the result ends up looking nothing like the examples consulted - unlike the technological approach: “There is a false equivalence between the training of these systems and the process we humans follow when we study other people’s creations”.

“AI is not creative, it doesn’t use imagination or intuition, it doesn’t have vital experiences, emotions or habits acquired over the years. The images it generates don’t have intentionality”, Maestro concludes.

Until image generators stop outputting gross stereotypes, people who wish to use these tools without propagating harmful tropes will have much work to do by hand.

Adobe, MidJourney and Sber AI were approached for comment.