See The Bizarre Image That Just Won an Inaugural Award For AI Art

In the black-and-white image, two women tightly cradle each other–and an octopus. Humans don’t hug cephalopods every day, so how did photographer Annika Nordenskiöld manage to capture the highly unusual sight? You guessed it. With the help of AI.

The lifelike picture, titled “Twin Sisters in Love,” on Saturday won the inaugural Prompted Peculiar International AI Prize at the Ballarat International Foto Biennale, an Australian photography festival running through October 22. The competition is believed to be one of the first, if not the first, AI-art award.

For the winning image, Nordenskiöld, who lives and works in Sweden, partnered with Midjourney, an AI tool that quickly turns text phrases, or “prompts,” into hyper realistic images by scanning a massive database trained on visual art by humans. Artificial intelligence tools like Midjourney, Dall-E and Stable Diffusion continue to capture imaginations, as they let anyone generate images from text in mesmerizing and sometimes creepy and wildly absurd ways.

“None of the places, people or creatures in my prompts exist in the physical realm,” Nordenskiöld said of her winning creation in a statement. “They were conjured from the sum of human experience in our deep collective well, as seen from my dreamboat with its flickering light.”

Art made with the help of AI has won awards before, amping up the already passionate debate over whether machines can generate real art, and what constitutes art in the first place. In 2022, for example, an AI-generated photo won an art prize at the Colorado State Fair, prompting an intense backlash from artists who charged the winner with, essentially, cheating. “We’re watching the death of artistry unfold right before our eyes,” one critic wrote on Twitter, now known as X.

Unlike the state fair competition, Ballarat International Foto Biennale explicitly solicited AI-generated work for its first Prompted Peculiar contest, receiving more than 100 submissions from around the world, including Germany, Israel and all over Australia. The jury shortlisted 20 of those works, including “A Friend in Need” by visual artist Morganna Magee. The image shows a kangaroo with a human-like arm standing upright and embracing an alien-looking creature in a rainy, muddy field.

AI art-generation tools have creatives like Magee and Nordenskiöld intrigued and excited, but it’s also raised ethical and copyright concerns. As machine-made art improves, graphic designers, illustrators, writers, composers and photographers also worry they could find themselves edged out of work.

“I understand the fear of AI and find it somewhat healthy,” Nordenskiöld said when accepting her $2,000 first prize on Sunday from Sweden, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. “But I see it more like a colleague I am working with.”

Fellow winners include Australian artist Hanna Silver, whose sepia-toned “Robot Intermarriage, Melbourne 1895, 2023,” shows a natty 19th century gentleman holding hands with a robot across an urban streetcar track. More than 1,000 festival visitors selected the old-timey picture as the Prompted Peculiar audience choice winner.

“Overall,” the three judges said in a joint statement, “the entries displayed a playful enthusiasm for AI-generated image-making, with a heavy emphasis on the photographic.”

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