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When AI’s eyes are smiling

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In April 2023, _ m0use316_ posted on Reddit a “selfie” of 10 Aztec warriors from long ago, pushing together to fit in the frame, peering into an invisible camera. You know, a selfie. It was created by the GenAI image generator Midjourney.

This was part of a set of 17 other images generated from the same prompt, except the era and nationality of the warriors changed: French soldiers in World War I, ancient Egyptian warriors, “African Tribal Warriors,” Spanish conquistadors, and more. All are in the standard selfie pose, and all are smiling broadly, even the Aztecs upon whom the conquistadors had inflicted genocidal cruelties.

The initial comments from Redditors on these posts were heartwarming. “It’s almost like they’re reaching out to us saying ‘we were here too, and we were just like you guys.’ It’s really beautiful,” posted one Redditor. (Ironically, a commenter accused that Redditor of being an AI bot.) 

A few comments down, another Redditor posted a brief but trenchant comment: “It doesn’t ‘humanize’ them. It Americanizes them.”

A month later, jenka (medium.com/@ socialcreature) took the same point much further and deeper in a post on Medium titled “AI and the American Smile: How AI Misrepresents Culture Through a Facial Expression.” jenka cites cross-cultural research that shows, “How we smile, when we smile, why we smile, and what it means is deeply culturally contextual.” For example, in one study, 90% of Americans and Europeans thought that if you make eye contact with a stranger, you should smile and look away. Only 15% of Russians agreed, with the rest preferring the option of skipping the smile. Likewise, cultures differ on whether leaders signal confidence and calm by smiling in public, or if they enact leadership by maintaining steely, determined expressions.  

jenka nails down her argument by contrasting the AI-generated selfies of Native American tribal leaders with actual historical photos of them posing for portraits in the mid-1800s. Not one smile is visible in the actual photos. She concludes: “In flattening the diversity of facial expressions of civilizations around the world AI had collapsed the spectrum of history, culture, photography, and emotion concepts into a singular, monolithic perspective.”

The whole world may not smile with you

Midjourney doesn’t respond to questions, but if you ask Google Gemini to expand on the idea that “Smiling as a social cue seems to vary across cultures and history,” it will tell you that smiling “carries a surprising amount of cultural and historical baggage.” It makes some excellent points along the way.

So what does it do when you ask for a selfie of Native American warriors in the mid-1800s? I’m using Gemini here because ChatGPT flat out refuses to create anachronistic photos. Neither does Gemini, but it at least suggests some alternatives. For example, would I like an image that substitutes a mirror for an iPhone? It also describes what that image would show: “Native Americans dressed in traditional clothing of their tribe, adorned with intricate beadwork and feathers. The group smiles and laughs together, a sense of camaraderie evident.”

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