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Can Midjourney’s CEO stop a storm of fake election images?

Midjourney founder David Holz built a tool for human imagination. What happens if that turns into a propaganda engine in 2024?

This illustration photograph taken on October 30, 2023, in Mulhouse, eastern France, shows figurines next to a screen displaying a logo of Midjourney, a generative artificial intelligence program and service.
This illustration photograph taken on October 30, 2023, in Mulhouse, eastern France, shows figurines next to a screen displaying a logo of Midjourney, a generative artificial intelligence program and service. (AFP)

Dotted around the internet are a multitude of silly images of Donald Trump. Here he is as a superhero, there he is as a cartoon warrior, and here he is playing basketball with a young Michael Jordan. The glossy look gives away these are AI-generated, but there’s no denying the underlying message: Trump holds on to a kind of online cultural power and is still weirdly beloved. 

The messenger is Midjourney, a San Francisco-based AI startup that in its 17-month existence has carried out no marketing, raised not a cent from venture capitalists, but is making $200 million in annual revenue and has become one of the most powerful tools for generating remarkably real AI “photos.” Fake snaps of Trump getting arrested and Pope Francis in a white puffer jacket confused internet users and went viral earlier this year, and were generated on Midjourney. The company has now released a new version that can do this with even more realism.

Having previously insisted that he doesn’t like fake photos, Midjourney founder David Holz finds himself steering a tool created for artists that’s also being exploited by propagandists. That’s the trajectory of a kind of classic AI innovator, one who couldn’t resist making their system more powerful at the price of their own standards. (Midjourney did not respond to multiple requests for comment or for an interview with Holz.)

Holz grew up in Florida where he carried out advanced science experiments as a kid — shooting paper airplanes at 160 mph down a homemade wind tunnel, for example — before juggling interests in design and math in higher education. He co-founded Leap Motion in 2008, a startup that made a USB device the size of an iPod that allowed you to control a computer program with hand gestures. Holz was more than a decade too early with his idea, and he stuck it out to his detriment. After spurning a takeover bid from Apple Inc. in 2013 for hundreds of millions of dollars, Leap Motion dropped in value. Holz finally sold it to a British firm in 2019 for $30 million.   

Undeterred, he founded Midjourney in 2021, eventually turning it into an independent research lab that would “expand the imaginative powers of the human species.” In interviews with Forbes and The Register in 2022, Holz described how Midjourney was a space for people to “make beautiful things.” He built the tool on an algorithm from OpenAI(1), and in the spring and summer of 2022, several months before OpenAI wowed the world with DALL-E 2, Holz released his own early versions of Midjourney, a tool that could conjure digital art from text prompts. His customers paid around $10-$60 a month to use the tool, accessing it through public chatrooms on the app Discord.

It could have all ended there, except Holz had the gold dust every Silicon Valley entrepreneur craves: connections. He picked up several renowned advisors including Nat Friedman, the CEO of coding site Github, who purchased thousands of AI chips this year for startups to exploit. These chips, known as GPUs, are critical to keeping ahead in the race to build AI. With help from his network, Holz amassed an enormous collection of GPUs — as many as 10,000, roughly the number estimated to train ChatGPT — to make Midjourney’s models smarter and faster. 

All that computing power translated into jaw-dropping improvements in version 5 of Midjourney, released in March 2023. When users asked it for photorealistic images of people, everything from skin texture to facial features were much more realistic, while reflections, shadows and lighting were also more true to life.

Version 6, released on Dec. 20, generates faces with even more startling detail, with skin pours and texture that make them virtually indistinguishable from real photos.  Midjourney users have been playing with the new software by generating Hollywood actors in imaginary movie stills, like this one of Leonardo DiCaprio as Lenin: 

Holz seems to have gone quiet since his interviews last year. Back then, the entrepreneur expressed deep discomfort with people using Midjourney to create fake photos. That was “extremely dangerous,” he said. “I don’t really want to be a source of fake photos in the world.” 

Yet by making Midjourney’s software more powerful, Holz laid the groundwork for fake images to proliferate. It now takes seconds to generate “photos” of celebrities and historic figures that are hyper-realistic, and some have risen to the top of Google search results. Many Midjourney users are still creating art, but plenty more are creating photorealistic portraits like the one below of Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu in Saudi clothing, which was created by a Midjourney user on Dec. 4, 2023. (The Midjourney user behind the Netanyahu image did not respond to requests for comment.) 

Many fear that AI photos will make misinformation worse, but in reality, it’s hard to see fake images of Netanyahu and Trump tricking most people. AI photos still look a little unreal, and press attention to “deepfakes” has made everyone more vigilant.

Their real impact will be more nuanced and harder to detect: A flood of fake images promoting certain ideas will act more like advertising campaigns that influence opinion rather than fool people. Fake photos that put Trump in critical historic moments — knocking down the Berlin Wall or fighting in the Vietnam War — that were made as a joke on X have found their way onto MAGA forums where people view them as inspiration, for instance. 

AI pics can also be a propaganda tool outside of politics. Online forums that encourage eating disorders have been using Midjourney and other similar software to post images of ultra-skinny people to “inspire” their members, according to an August study by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit group. 

Midjourney uses its own AI software to block potentially harmful content and it has about 70 hires monitoring its output, according to recent reporting by Bloomberg News. But such restrictions are relatively easy to circumvent. For instance, while Midjourney won’t let you generate images of Bill and Hillary Clinton with blood on their hands, it will let you put blood-red strawberry syrup on them.             

Holz seems aware of the problem. Back in March, he ended Midjourney’s free-trial program and cited “abuse” by users. But the effects of propaganda are, like advertising, hard to track. As more people use his service — with some 9 million users reported to be on his Midjourney’s Discord server — all that new content generated to support Trump, eating disorders or any other cultural value will become more difficult to police. 

It took eight months for Midjourney to release Version 6, a noticeably long time compared to the quicker releases of previous versions, which came two-to-four months apart. Holz may be struggling to get the AI chips he needs, or he could be grappling with the responsibilities of opening such an influential tool to the public mere months before a presidential election. Let’s hope it was the latter.  

(1) Called CLIP, it was a neural network that could learn visual concepts from natural language.

Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. A former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes, she is author of “We Are Anonymous.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.

Also read: Why everyone is talking about Midjourney

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