Images created by DALL-E.

Psychedelic colors.

Chimeric bird-snake creatures.

Tamales sold from roadside carts.

When artificial intelligence DALL-E was asked to portray the Mission, these are some of the motifs that were conjured from its digital depths.

Tech company OpenAI, which created DALL-E, is based in the Mission, at Folsom and 18th streets. Last weekend, it opened up access to its AI to the general public, allowing anyone and everyone to try out the model. Businesses that use the service extensively are charged, but nosy journalists or members of the public can poke around for free.

It works like this: Users enter a text prompt; for example, “The Day of the Dead procession in San Francisco’s Mission District, in the style of Vincent Van Gogh,” and after a few seconds of computation, DALL-E spits out an image to match your description. In this case:

Image created by DALL-E using prompt, “The Day of the Dead procession in San Francisco’s Mission District in the style of Vincent Van Gogh.”

DALL-E creates its pictures using a process a bit like a super-powerful visual autocorrect. Working backward from a random assortment of pixels, it tries to build up a picture that is likely to match your text prompt. It can understand how text and images are related, because it has ingested a vast number of image and caption pairs from across the internet. Apparently, the math behind its operation is laid out here, although to my non-engineer brain it may as well be witchcraft.

The technology is not without its ethical quandaries. Because it is based on publicly available data, the images it produces can replicate biases seen in the wider world (for example, its pictures may represent men more often than women). AI art has also been criticized for displacing human artists, as when AI-generated art won first prize at the Colorado State Fair.

Nonetheless, its interpretations of the Mission, its home turf, are striking. Without further ado, here is a glimpse of our neighborhood through the eyes of an artificial intelligence.

Mission murals

Day of the Dead

Mission from the sky

Selling tamales on Mission Street

Dolores Park

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DATA REPORTER. Will was born in the UK and studied English at Oxford University. After a few years in publishing, he absconded to the USA where he studied data journalism in New York. Will has strong views on healthcare, the environment, and the Oxford comma.

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  1. Will,

    A guy who told me he was from the Future Mars once told me that the first thing someone like him concluded about Earth was that everyone worshipped Time as revealed by clocks everywhere even on wrists and some of those talked!

    Go Niners !


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  2. Thank you for the glimpse into a new artistic tool. As time proceeds we will see how to use AI to create refreshing and frightening points of view. AI may create it but only the mind can enjoy it. Some of the cityscapes look post apocalyptic. Who needs mushrooms? Great work!

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  3. In line with the state of the art, DALL-E has no ability to understand correlations between text and images – it uses a model that is able of generalization, as the referenced paper describes. With that, there is no ability to support judgment to gauge potential bias.

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