AI art generator vs humans – the battle is on in photo contest

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AI has been making a lot of headlines recently, and not just in the form of ChatGPT – an AI-generated ‘aerial photo’ of surfers on a sun-kissed beach created by Absolutely Ai (see below), fooled judges to win a photography contest organized by an Australian camera retailer.

Red-faced at being taken in by an AI-generated image, the retailer, digiDirect, reallocated the prize to a human entrant, and has now upped the ante by announcing a new photo contest that will accept both entries from photographers and images created by AI, which it hopes “will settle the man vs machine, or photo vs image, debate, on a level playing field.”

The one-off human vs machine photo contest (opens in new tab)has no theme and is already underway, with both entries being accepted until February 26.

What’s unique about this contest is that the judging panel – made up of several high-profile Australia-based professional photographers – are not privy to whether the images they’re looking at are photos of real subjects, taken by a human using a camera, or have been created by a human prompting an AI art generator. 

Drone shot of a beach at sunrise with waves crashing around two surfers

(Image credit: Absolutely AI)

Can an AI art generator win again?

The triumph of AI in a photo contest serves as a reminder of just how powerful AI art generators are becoming – and not just when it comes to churning out weird and wacky images like those produced by Dall-E, at which they’re already frighteningly effective – but for creating highly convincing photo-realistic results. 

Out of curiosity, I’ve used some of the leading AI art generators in a bid to create realistic photos – including Midjourney’s Discord app, which is the tool Absolutely Ai used – and it’s not as easy as you might think. 

Look closer, and the cracks in AI images appear. When I spoke with Jamie Sissons, the founder of Absolutely Ai and creator of that winning image, he said, “it is a convincing image because no one had the reason to think otherwise.” 

Now, however, AI will be very much in the spotlight, and it feels like there’s less of a level playing field in the context of a photo contest, with the judges tipped off and scrutinizing images for evidence of AI input, and I’d be highly surprised if an AI image was to win again. 

The original contest provoked a backlash from within the photography community towards AI art generators, which are perceived as the latest technological threat to humans trying to earn a living in the creative industries – and I’m sure many people, whether they’re photographers or not, will be rooting for a human victor, even if the result doesn’t settle the human vs AI debate once and for all.

Whoever – or whatever – wins, I really hope that the contest attracts lots of engagement from both photographers and their would-be AI rivals, and I can’t wait to see the outcome.

Timothy Coleman

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