Illustrated Man

There is a nice story in this week’s issue about a family who saved a woman in grave danger. This isn’t about the story per se, but rather about how one “news” site treated it. Let’s start with the story:

Friendly Neighbors

When a family arrived at their business in Katy, Texas, after lunch, they heard a scream from the business next door, a cell phone shop. At first, Han An, his wife, Hong, and their sons, Simon and Christian, and daughter, Hannah, thought someone was just joking around. But then, “We heard the second scream,” Simon said, “which was a horror scream.” All five rushed next door to find a man on top of the “young female” employee. Han took care of the attacker single-handedly: “pinned him in the corner,” Simon said. The others didn’t need to help, even though they’re all fourth-degree black belts in taekwondo; they’re all taekwondo instructors, and their father is the Grand Master at the dojo next door, where Hong took the victim to get away. Sheriff deputies arrived and arrested Alex Robinson, 19, for assault. The family shrugged off the “hero” label. “We’re just doing what is right,” Simon explained, which is to “take him off and hold him there until he gets arrested.” (RC/KTRK Houston, KHOU Houston) …This is the way.

First: Why yes, that is a Mandalorian reference in the tag.

The An family: Hong, Simon, Han, Hannah, and Christian. (Yong-In Tae Kwon Do)

Law enforcement agencies often use social media to do their “press releases” — including Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who released the story with a nice high-resolution image of the An family, presumably provided by the dojo. (It’s old enough that it shows the kids with fourth-degree black belts; they’ve actually since graduated to fifth-degree; Hong is still fourth-degree.)

Thus, just about every media outlet that picked up the story ran it with that photo, including True. The criminal suspect they captured, by the way, is being held on $100,000 bail.

Weird Coverage

As I was checking other sources to make sure I found all the details I wanted, I ran across something absolutely bizarre.

It’s not just that international news sites picked it up — not unusual at all. Not even that ex-pat sites picked it up. But Aussiedlerbote (literally “Resettler Messenger”), for ex-pats living in Germany, has an interesting practice: it runs photos through some sort of (probably AI-driven) cartoon generator. Perhaps it’s just to make the image “theirs,” but …well, you be the judge:

Wait… what? (Click to see larger.)

It’s not just the fantasy that this family are Justice League superheroes. It’s that they’re all suddenly …white. The mother suddenly looks younger than her daughter, and her dobok is suddenly a shirt and pants. Her balding husband suddenly has a full head of hair.

Rather than looking at the camera, they’re detached, looking away from the viewer. Impersonal, distracted, uncaring …for a story about how they cared deeply enough to intervene in a serious crime, yet rejected the hero label.

I find it absolutely bizarre.

I skimmed around the site and found that all, or nearly all, the photos get this treatment, so maybe the racism and sexism isn’t specifically intended. So maybe check a different story?

Random Other Example

Rita Süssmuth, from Aussiedlerbote (click to see larger).

That’s what I did, and this is what I found: check out this image from a story about Rita Süssmuth, the tenth president of Germany’s Bundestag (federal parliament).

If you can’t tell or don’t know, Süssmuth is a woman: the story is about her coping with breast cancer. But instead of making this 87-year-old woman look like a young girl, they made her look like a man, complete with a five-o’clock shadow. (The article is here — an archive copy in case it ages off their site or is later altered).

If that’s not bizarre enough for you, you can probably find your own examples at the link above to the full site.

The Point

The choice of illustrations for news articles can be more than simple documentation, as most news outlets do, including True.

They can also be used to alter viewer impressions, such as making Asians look white, or making an elderly woman look like a man. An ideological slam? Could well be, but I have no idea as to Aussiedlerbote’s political leanings. Yet I can guess they’re not exactly friendly to that particular politician. And they certainly seem to be unfriendly to non-whites, even when extolling their heroics.

If that’s not the impression they mean to make, they need to rethink their style. If it is, then consumers need to rethink their choice of news source: they’re being manipulated.

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9 Comments on “Illustrated Man

  1. Too many ‘news’ sources put their own spin on the news. I would much rather hear ‘the facts, ma’am, only the facts’.

  2. I’ve been working with both photo filters and AI animation in some of my projects. It’s quite interesting to see both the amazing things it can do, as well as the limitations.

    I can see the biases, especially in how it wants to find humans and human faces. Working with Star Wars footage shows it trying to put faces in helmets, turn aliens into humans, and a Wookie into a long haired female.

    Finding the biases and refining the AI seems like part of the process.

    • I see a lot of tiny house floor plans depicted as rooms in my Facebook feed, and a lot of them, nearly all, are AI-generated. The mistakes AI systems make are usually bizarre, and often are bizarre along common themes — in the case of those floor plans turned into images of houses, the most common AI mistakes are stairs that go nowhere, or an apparent assumption that humans can fly (because that’s the only way in or out of some rooms).

  3. I think that this is merely one more example of “AIs always lie”. I understand that the official explanation is “hallucination”, but the fundamental point is that AIs do not depict the images that they are supposed to.

    And every such example makes me less and less willing to accept ANYTHING that an AI produces.

    I sure can’t argue against that rule. -rc

  4. My dad told me years ago, “Believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see.” True then and certainly now with the advent of large language models. I decline to call it AI, as it is not actual intelligence; more accurately, it is large and rapid regurgitation code. AI won’t really be here until the device says, “Let there be light,” and light appears — see Isaac Asimov’s short story “The Last Question.”

    In looking up possible bias at Aussiedlerbote, everything seems to indicate neither right or left leaning biases in the writing. That said, they really need to rethink their pictorial decision making….

    Thanks for your evaluation, and The Last Question is indeed my fave Asimov short. -rc

  5. Their AI seems to be completely clueless when it comes to gender. Here’s Randal Kolo Muani being hugged by his teammate after scoring a winning goal. (Original)

    And here is David Beckham and his mother watching a tennis match at Wimbledon. They got her white hair and white jacket correct, at least.

    It looks to me like a composite of two originals: David and his mom watching tennis, and the two of them in her kitchen (you can see the cabinets, appliances, and window).

    Excellent, and eye-rolling, examples. -rc

  6. Der Aussiedlerbote is a publication in German and Russian language, which is obviously published for Russians relocating to Germany. These are often families, whose ancestors had moved to Russia centuries ago and who now are coming back. Using drawings probably saves them from paying for the rights of photo usage.

    Thanks, though as noted they also have an English version, presumably for English speakers moving there. Not sure a copyright court would agree such alterations clears them of copyright infringement, but that’s a quibble. -rc

  7. I find it interesting that the current AI versions have blown past the Turing Test, not even a bump or hiccup. It’s like a dam just burst. Try giving an AI the same sentence. I did this for the snowball version decades ago. I used “I glarf you”.

    I glarf you too, Bandit! -rc


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