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Why Pope Francis is star of AI photos

Over the last few weeks, dozens of photos have appeared showing the leader of the world’s Roman Catholics in strange scenarios, sending social media into a tizzy

Kalley Huang San Francisco Published 09.04.23, 04:33 AM
Pope Francis

Pope Francis File picture

Pope Francis wearing a long, white puffer jacket inspired by Balenciaga. Francis rocking aviators and revving a motorcycle down a busy street. Francis turning the tables in a dim nightclub. Francis in a tactical vest, preparing to fly a fighter jet. Francis sharing a beer at Burning Man.

Over the last few weeks, dozens of photos have appeared showing the leader of the world’s Roman Catholics in strange scenarios, sending social media into a tizzy. Apart from the pontiff himself, the images all have something in common: They are fake, made by artificial intelligence tools that create images from short text prompts.

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Many public figures — including the basketball star LeBron James and various Real Housewives — have popped up in AI-generated pictures recently, but the images with Francis have made the biggest splash. They have earned more views, likes and comments than many other AI photos, according to a review by The New York Times, prompting a race to depict the 86-year-old in odder and odder situations.

“I had to get involved in the Pope thing,” one Reddit user recently wrote alongside AI images of Francis practising martial arts, playing basketball and skateboarding. “Jumping on the Pope bandwagon,” another said, sharing an image of the pontiff speaking to a crowd of bikers.

Francis’s prevalence in AI-generated images is the result of a perfect storm of factors, religious experts said. After 10 years as the head of the Catholic Church, he is instantly recognisable around the world.

He is viewed as a more approachable leader than his harder-line predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. And when combined with a sudden burst of interest in new AI tools, Francis — who in real life is often pictured in formal settings — became the recurring choice of creators to place in the most incongruous scenarios.

The goal, some creators said, was to show that even the pope can kick back, be a daredevil and have fun.

An AI-generated image of Francis. The flood of papal imagery has been so voluminous that some people in online generative AI forums have begged creators to use another inspiration.

Global religious figures like the pope are natural subjects of political satire and artistic expression, said Jennifer Herdt, a professor of Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School. Francis is ideal, she added, because he “is known for his simplicity, his solidarity with the poorest of the poor”, so when he is the subject of far-out scenarios such as flying a fighter jet, “it’s definitely the height of incongruity, of defying expectations”.

AI images can be dangerous if people believe them to be real and misuse them to spread misinformation. “You lull people into not double checking,” said Subbarao Kambhampati, a computer science professor at Arizona State University. “Then you are shifted little by little from reality.”

But many of the AI images featuring Francis have elicited chuckles of affection for the pope, who recently had a health scare and is deepinto a longer-than-average papacy.

“People experience Pope Francis as a pope of the people, so you would enjoy putting him in all these places where the people are,” said the Rev. Serene Jones, the president and a professor of religion and democracy at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

The Vatican did not respond to a request for comment about the pope’s AI-generated fame.

The image that turned Francis into an AI star shows him in a white puffer jacket in the style of Balenciaga, an haute French fashion house, striding down the street.

It appeared to have first been posted on March 24 on a Reddit forum for the generative AI tool Midjourney and then shared across social media.

One tweet sharing the image — captioned “The boys in Brooklyn could only hope for this level of drip” — was liked more than 229,000 times and viewed 20.6 million times. In contrast, a tweet sharing AI-generated images of former President Donald J. Trump’s being arrested got 40,000 likes and 6.4 million views.

Midjourney, which released Version 5 of its image-generating tool last month, didn’t respond to a request for comment. The tool generates custom, hyper-realistic images from just a few words and can now create hands with the correct number of fingers, a previous barrier to believability.

Since then, Francis has become an AI muse. He has been shown eating fast food, meeting with aliens, playing the guitar at the Glastonbury Festival, scuba diving, dancing at the beach and cleaning up bio-hazardous waste in a hazmat suit.

The flood of papal imagery has been so voluminous that some people in online generative AI forums have begged creators to use another inspiration.

That hasn’t stopped depictions of an increasingly outlandishly dressed Francis. In some images, he has graduated from a puffer jacket to an all-black outfit with a leather jacket. In another, he is wearing a rainbow trench coat.

Those prompted others to put Francis in an outfit of the people: a sweatshirt, sweatpants and dad sneakers.

New York Times News Service

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