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How fake AI images can expand your mind

What the pope in a puffer coat means for the human imagination.

An AI generated image of Pope Francis wearing a big white puffy coat and dangling cross, on a colorful gradient background, with colors and streaks bursting from his upper body. Photo illustration by Dion Lee/Vox; pope image generated by Reddit user “u/trippy_art_special” on Midjourney; Background generated by Midjourney
Oshan Jarow is a Future Perfect fellow, where he focuses on economics, consciousness studies, and varieties of progress. Before joining Vox, he co-founded the Library of Economic Possibility, where he led policy research and digital media strategy.

A recent viral image of Pope Francis wearing an unusually hip white puffer jacket was both a fake created by generative AI and an omen that marked the accelerating collapse of a clearly distinguishable boundary between imagination and reality.

Photorealistic images of fictions — like Donald Trump getting arrested while stumbling in a sea of cops — can now be generated on demand by AI programs like Midjourney, DALL-E 2, and Stable Diffusion. This sets off alarm bells around how misinformation may thrive. But along with risks, AI-generated imagery also offers a great leap forward for the human imagination.

“Seeing is believing” goes both ways. Image-generating AI will allow us to see realistic depictions of what does not yet exist, expanding the kinds of futures we can imagine as visual realities. The human imagination doesn’t build ideas from scratch. It’s combinatorial: The mind cobbles together new ideas from accumulated bits and pieces it has been exposed to. AI-generated images will greatly increase the raw material of plausible worlds the mind can imagine inhabiting and, through them, the kinds of futures we perceive as possible.

For example, it’s one thing to read a description or see an illustration of a futuristic city with inspiring architecture, public transportation woven through greenery, and spaces designed for human interaction, not cars. It’s another to see a spread of photorealistic images of what that could actually look like. By creating realistic representations of imagined realities, text-to-image-generating AI can make it easier for the mind to include new possibilities in how it imagines the world, reducing the barriers to believing that they could become a lived reality.

The pope’s puffer jacket was a sign of hyperreality

Last Friday, Reddit user “u/trippy_art_special” posted the image of the pope to the Midjourney subreddit, the generative AI platform used to produce it. The post contained four variations (a hallmark of Midjourney) of the pope ensconced in an on-trend long, puffy, white coat. One even had him in dark sunglasses, which looked especially smooth, even mysterious, in contrast to the radiant white of the coat and the deep chain.

The image was widely mistaken as real, and the pope’s outfit was big news over the weekend. Once people caught on that the image was fake, it became even bigger news. “No way am I surviving the future of technology,” the American model Chrissy Teigen tweeted.

Debates over why this particular image went viral or why so many people believed it to be real will soon be moot. For something that appears so convincing, why wouldn’t we believe it? Neither was this the first media brush between Pope Francis and high fashion. In 2008, the Vatican daily newspaper quashed rumors of designer loafers, stating, “The pope, therefore, does not wear Prada, but Christ.”

For those who scrutinized the image, you could still find clues of falsehood. A few inconspicuous smudges and blurs. But Midjourney’s pace of improvement suggests correcting these remaining signs will happen swiftly. What then?

At The Verge, senior reporter James Vincent likened AI-generated imagery to the dawn of “hyperreality,” a concept developed by the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. “Sooner or later,” Vincent wrote, AI fakes are going to become hyperreal, “masking the distinction entirely between the imaginary and the real.”

It’s easy to imagine the nightmare that could follow. Hyperreality is usually invoked as a concern over simulations displacing reality, posing real and looming threats. AI fakes will offer fertile grounds for a new and potentially harrowing era of misinformation, rabbit holes unmoored from reality, and all manners of harassment. Adapting media literacy habits and protective regulations will be crucial.

But there is an upside: While AI fakes threaten to displace what the mind perceives as reality, they can also expand it.

AI fakes can extend your mind

In 1998, two leading philosophers — Andy Clark and David Chalmers — published a paper on their idea of “the extended mind.” They argued that cognitive processes are not confined within the boundaries of the skull, but extend out through the tools we use to interact with the world. These aids — a notebook, for example — are tangled up in how we think and are part of our extended minds. In this view, tools can become something like cognitive limbs: not separate from our capacities, but part of them.

You can flip this around: Building new tools is a way of building new mental capabilities. Until last weekend, most people could have imagined some image of what the pope might look like in a fashion-week puffer jacket (unless you have aphantasia, in which mental imagery is not part of your internal experience). But those mental images can be slippery. The more artistic among us could have drawn a few ideas, prompting a richer image. But soon, anyone will be able to imagine anything and render it into photorealistic quality, seeing it as though it were real. Making the visual concrete gives the mind something solid to grab hold of. That is a new trick for the extended mind.

“You should understand these tools as aids to your imagination,” says Tony Chemero, a professor of philosophy and psychology at the University of Cincinnati and member of the Center for Cognition, Action, and Perception. But “imagining isn’t something that just happens in your brain,” he added. “It’s interacting skillfully with the world around you. The imagination is in the activity, like an architect doing sketches.”

There is disagreement among cognitive scientists on which kinds of tools merge with our extended minds, and which retain separate identities as tools we think with rather than through. Chemero distinguished between tools of the extended mind, like spoons or bicycles, and computers that run generative AI software like Midjourney. When riding a bicycle and suddenly wobbling through an inconveniently placed crater in the concrete, people tend to say, “I hit a pothole,” instead of, “The bicycle wheel hit the pothole.” The tool is conceived as a part of you. You’d be less likely to say, “I fell on the floor,” after dropping your laptop.

Still, he told me that any tool that changes how we interact with the world also changes how we understand ourselves. “Especially what we understand ourselves as being capable of,” he added.

Clark and Chalmers end their paper with an unusually fun line for academic philosophy: “once the hegemony of skin and skull is usurped, we may be able to see ourselves more truly as creatures of the world.” Thinking with AI image generators, we may be able to see ourselves — in picture-perfect quality — as creatures of many different potential worlds, flush with imaginative possibilities that blend fact and fiction.

“It might be that you can use this to see different possible futures,” Chemero told me, “to build them as a kind of image that a young person can imagine themselves as moving toward.” G20 summits where all the world leaders are women; factories with warm lighting, jovial atmospheres, and flyers on how to form unions. These are now fictional realities we can see, rather than dimly imagine through flickers in the mind.

Of course, reality is real, as the world was reminded earlier this week when 86-year-old Pope Francis was taken into medical care for what the Vatican is calling a respiratory infection, though by Thursday he was reportedly improving and tweeting from the hospital. But if seeing is believing, these tools will make it easier for us to believe that an incredible diversity of worlds is possible, and to hold on to their solid images in our minds so that we can formulate goals around them. Turning imagination into reality starts with clear pictures. Now that we can generate them, we can get to work.