Digital Media & Inclusivity

A Portrait of Artificial Intelligence: A Trend Analysis of the Visual Representation of AI in Media

What does artificial intelligence (AI) look like? A robot with red eyes, a white, plastic line worker, a cybernetic brain, a line of code? Or does it manifest through social and cultural occurrences that illustrate the complex relationships people have to emerging technologies? This study identifies themes in how AI is represented and visualized in news, and participatory media. The study uses science communication theory as well as case studies that identify visual communication as paramount in establishing inclusivity, collaboration, and education for socially-driven technology. With visual media as the focus, this study analyzed two hundred text-based media articles over a ten year period from publications varying in size, nature, and geography. ​The goal of this study was to identify whether there existed a disconnect in AI literacy between text-based information and visual media that is designed for non-expert audiences. More so, if or how visual form is assigned to AI as an intangible, and highly representative concept and technology. The results contribute to a larger discourse on how AI is portrayed in, and by science fiction narratives and also through connections to private industries. Lastly, this study adds a modern perspective to science communication research by considering participatory media, economies of attention, and emerging technologies as nuanced factors driving AI discourse, and thus its direction.
About the Author
Nicole Hack

In Nicole’s undergraduate degree, she focused on management, business, professional communication, and media production in the context of creative industries. Nicole’s lifelong passion for the creative and performing arts, production, and design has guided her academic journey and fostered her entrepreneurial spirit. Her professional media and production background includes contemporary and competitive dance, theatre production, film production, post production, creative writing, marketing communications, photography, graphic design, and prototyping. Nicole is currently working on a series of independent and interdisciplinary projects involving physical computing, themed attraction and experience design, artificial intelligence and science communication. She hopes to leverage her diverse range of competencies and expertise as a project management professional specializing in highly technical, immersive and experiential creative projects.

About the Project

What does artificial intelligence (AI) look like? A robot with red eyes, a white, plastic line worker, a cybernetic brain, a line of code? A Portrait of AI is a trend analysis of 200 news and media articles containing over 400 visual aids that supplement text-based discourse on varying AI topics. The samples related to AI in the contexts of creativity, business, society & culture, security, innovation, or medicine. Overall, the goal was to frame how a large array of professional communicators used visual media to contribute to publicly accessible dialogue about AI. 

"The limited range of ways to convey key concepts in AI and machine learning contributes to the sensationalism of this critical topic and does little to demystify AI, or help audiences understand how it works and its potential impact on our lives" - Lindsay Stuart

The study of AI from a visual communication perspective generally lacked consideration although there is substantial evidence connecting progress and inclusive innovation in STEM to the use of visual campaigns. Major examples include nuclear power, nanotechnology, climate change, astronomy and genetically modified organisms. 

In the unique case of AI, there exist no physical form to identify it with. As a result, visualizations of the technology must manifest through whatever the visual communicator decides is best. What often happens is communicators use robot narratives and polarized, imaginative illustrations of utopian and dystopian futures to illustrate AI. These dominate common perceptions of what AI is - superior, intelligent, sentient. This is ultimately misleading and confined by privatized source materials and/or imaginative frameworks. 

"False fears may lead to lost opportunities through failure to adopt potentially highly beneficial technology" - The Royal Society

A leading hypothesis of this study was that this trend in using AI narratives - being narratives directly bound to AI as a central plot point - would extend into mass media communications. This assumption was not true. Instead, this study highlighted a new perspective where depictions of commercial and privatized subjects led visual communication. Also, evidence of real-world and utilitarian interaction with AI through products and services made up for most of the visual information in the study while connections to AI-narrative were very uncommon. 

This study provides a framework for further research that will require public participation and collaboration with AI experts.

Learn more at:
Covid has undoubtedly, and deeply impacted my research experience and design. What was once supposed to be a tangible experiment became an extensive study that framed a crucial avenue for further research and intervention in communication studies. Visual evidence of privatization in AI research, and limited participation in social contexts with AI reintroduces the notion that seeing is believing and that framing our relationship to AI, and encouraging meaningful participation is crucial. This is especially true in a time when our relationship to technology is more intimate than ever. I hope this study evidences the need for further research into the visual communication of AI, and the data accumulated by this study contributes developing studies on public perception and engagement in AI discourse.