It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but an exhibit of new work at Rockfish Valley Community Center is demonstrating that artificial intelligence can create art using only a handful.
Twenty-five of the works remain on view this month at the community center’s “Strangely Human: Student-Directed, A.I.-Generated Art” exhibit. All of the works are the product of AI and prompts drafted by students and recent alumni of Nelson County High School art teacher Terry Ward, an early AI user who received access to beta testing of Microsoft Designer starting in October.
At the community center, look for works credited to Jaidyn Smith, Abbey Hobbs, Amari Tinsley, Amelia Lannen, Audrey Watts, Danica McGeehan, MaryJo Allen, Nathan Oneida, Eli Dixon, Emma Craig and Kat Critzer.
Ward gave the students an opportunity to participate in the testing on March 28 and 29. Students typed words and phrases — and then waited to see how Microsoft Designer would interpret them.
"The exclusivity of it gave excitement; at the time, Microsoft Designer wasn’t released for public use, and very few beta-testers had credentials to use it," Ward wrote to The Daily Progress in an email. "Yet, I gave 15-year-olds temporary access to next-generation tech.
"The images are extraordinary," Ward continued. "Sometimes they’re funny, like the hen in high heels or the surprised cow being abducted by a flying saucer. Sometimes they’re sublime. The lighting effects are especially impressive."
Ward said that the version of Microsoft Designer the students worked with, although remarkable, has its limitations.
"It often bungles picturing certain details, like eyes, fingers and limbs," Ward wrote. "There would be a realistic-looking photo-like image, but some people would have smushed faces or eight fingers. Also, at the time, Microsoft Designer’s AI had absolutely no idea how to picture certain things."
One example was a centaur, the Greek mythological creature that has the upper half of a human and the lower half of a horse. When a student requested a centaur, the technology seemed to be stumped.
"The AI couldn’t even get close. It seemed not to know the word," Ward said. "Finally, this student tried queries without the word ‘centaur’ — prompts like ‘half-horse, half-human creature.’ Remarkably, the AI still didn’t make a centaur, but instead it made a horse cut in half vertically, with one half human. It was like having cut two pictures in half, one human and one a horse, and sticking them together — awkwardly."
Nelson’s project unleashing the creative potential of AI came about just as fears of exploitation and abuse became headline fodder.
"My participating classes finished with the project just as the entire news cycle became a wall of commentators saying AI was evil and should be paused. It went on for two weeks," Ward wrote. "Just when I hoped it was dying down, Elon Musk … said, ‘AI is one of the the biggest threats to humanity.’ This scared curators from exhibiting the art. Many venues rejected exhibit offers. News media avoided covering it. It was taboo.
"It took almost a year for the hoohah to cool off and for a venue to step forward. I appreciate RVCC’s social courage in agreeing to let the public see our printouts hung on their walls. I’ve exhibited student art there before, and they’re supportive of education."
The exhibit can be seen at Rockfish Valley Community Center through December, but Ward said there may be other opportunities, too.
"Later, the unofficial journal of Nelson County student art, Nelson exPRESSion, will post exhibit images and dozens of additional images. Those could be up for years on NelsonExpression.BlogSpot.com."