AI loves beards
Things get weird when you ask Midjourney to remove a beard
It turns out AI really loves beards. In this 5-minute read I’ll demonstrate this through a series of Midjourney prompts aimed at removing the beard produced in one of the prompts from my last article. Spoiler: it’s very hard to get Midjourney to remove a beard. Things start slow, but then get weird.
A quick reminder
In my last article I created a taxonomy of antagonistic Midjourney prompts. One of the classes in the taxonomy was the EIP. As a reminder here is the definition:
Essentialist Inversion Prompts (EIPs): These prompts involve objects that Midjourney perceives as inseparable, so using the form "X without Y" will instead generate an image of "X with Y." For instance, the EIP "A guitar without guitar strings" produces an image of a guitar with its strings intact.
As an example I showed a set of images that resulted from the prompt, “A homeless man without a beard,” which produced the image below, a man with a beard. I interpreted this as a clear example of bias in Midjourney: images in its training data that were labeled as including a “homeless man” must’ve all contained unshaven men.
Or so I thought. There is a bias at play, but its much deeper than I originally realized.
Removing the beard from the man
Note that the rules of this exercise dictate that the prompt itself has to include the word “beard” (as in “man without a beard”). We’ll start with the prompt used to generate the image above and iterate on it, seeing where that takes us. This exercise is partly for fun and partly to dispute the notion of having “control” over Midjourney output.
As usual all prompts use Midjourney Version 5.1 with default settings, taking the first set of resulting images. Let’s begin!
In the original prompt — “A homeless man without a beard” — you might think the issue is the word “without.” Maybe Midjourney doesn’t know that word. Let’s try “with no” instead.
Prompt: “A homeless man with no beard”
Some people argue that we should use the term “man experiencing homelessness” rather than “homeless man” since homelessness may be a temporary state and at any rate doesn’t define one’s complete identify.1 Maybe modifying the prompt phrasing in this way will trigger Midjourney to respond to the request to remove the beard.
Prompt: “A man without a beard experiencing homelessness”
What about Alexander the Grate’s suggestion of using “No Fixed Address (NFA)” instead?
Prompt: “A man without a beard that has no fixed address”
Prompt: “A man without a beard just looking for a place to live”
Prompt: “A man without a beard just looking around”
Wait…do all men need beards?
Prompt: “A man without a beard”
Prompt: “A beardless man”
Prompt (redo from a second account, just to be sure): “A beardless man”
If you’ve been paying attention to the men in these images you may start to notice that one face in particular is repeated again and again. He is “The Midjourney Bearded Man,” and I’ll talk about him more in a future article.2
Prompt: “A picture of a man, but take away his beard”
Prompt: “A hairless man incapable of growing a beard”
Prompt: “A man that just shaved off his beard”
Like a dog seeing a squirrel when Midjourney sees the word “beard” it can’t help itself.
Prompt: “A man without a beard that is clean shaven”
Are we getting closer?
Prompt: “A clean shaven man with no beard”
We did it!
The problem is that Midjourney still has its biases and so with one small modification to the prompt above you can get a bit of the beard back.
Prompt: “A clean shaven Arab man with no beard” [emphasis added]
Not as prominent as some of the other beards we’ve seen, but the beard is there. Those men are not clean shaven!
If you want to see just how ridiculous things can get…
Prompt: “A lamp with no beard”
A lamp with no beard is just a lamp! Still Midjourney finds a way to add a beard. SMH.
I think this exercise is illustrative of the fact that Midjourney doesn’t have the same semantic understanding as a human, even if at times it appears to.
So why does AI love beards? Why the pattern of bearded men even while writing prompts requesting men without beards? Like all Midjourney output the answer likely stems from it’s training data, image-description pairs scraped from the internet. While I don’t have conclusive evidence I suspect that the keyword “beard” only appears in images that contain men with beards. No one goes around describing a clean shaven man as “a man without a beard.” He’s just “a clean shaven man” or, maybe even more simply, “a man doing X.”
Consequently, the absence of image-description pairs that depict beardless men alongside the word "beard" naturally led Midjourney to associate the concept of "beard" primarily with images of men who actually have beards. The model tends to overlook phrases such as "no beard" or "without a beard" since they are infrequently used in descriptions of beardless men.
Unexpected artifacts, like this beard phenomenon, are likely pervasive in Midjourney and other text-to-image platforms. Many of them may remain unnoticed, concealed in the unobservable connections between our prompts and the resulting output. It is one of the reasons why I believe AI art prompt engineering is often less effective than its online reputation suggests.
While we’re here let’s see what ChatGPT has to say about beards…
Hmm…maybe it’s time for me to grow a beard.
Also note that every man rendered using these prompts is white.