Meet DALL-E, the AI that draws anything at your command

By Cade Metz, The New York Times Company

SAN FRANCISCO — At OpenAI, one of the world’s most ambitious artificial intelligence labs, researchers are building technology that lets you create digital images simply by describing what you want to see.

They call it DALL-E in a nod to both “WALL-E,” the 2008 animated movie about an autonomous robot, and Salvador Dalí, the surrealist painter.

OpenAI, backed by $1 billion in funding from Microsoft, is not yet sharing the technology with the general public. But on a recent afternoon, Alex Nichol, one of the researchers behind the system, demonstrated how it works.

When he asked for “a teapot in the shape of an avocado,” typing those words into a largely empty computer screen, the system created 10 distinct images of a dark green avocado teapot, some with pits and some without.

“DALL-E is good at avocados,” Nichol said.

When he typed “cats playing chess,” it put two fluffy kittens on either side of a checkered game board, 32 chess pieces lined up between them. When he summoned “a teddy bear playing a trumpet underwater,” one image showed tiny air bubbles rising from the end of the bear’s trumpet toward the surface of the water.

DALL-E can also edit photos. When Nichol erased the teddy bear’s trumpet and asked for a guitar instead, a guitar appeared between the furry arms.

A team of seven researchers spent two years developing the technology, which OpenAI plans to eventually offer as a tool for people like graphic artists, providing new shortcuts and new ideas as they create and edit digital images. Computer programmers already use Copilot, a tool based on similar technology from OpenAI, to generate snippets of software code.

But for many experts, DALL-E is worrisome. As this kind of technology continues to improve, they say, it could help spread disinformation across the internet, feeding the kind of online campaigns that may have helped sway the 2016 presidential election.

“You could use it for good things, but certainly you could use it for all sorts of other crazy, worrying applications, and that includes deepfakes,” like misleading photos and videos, said Subbarao Kambhampati, a professor of computer science at Arizona State University.

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