After seeing recent images from OpenAI’s DALL-E-2 art generator, I decided to give it a try. I thought about a topic that I am interested in, others I know are interested in, and I was curious to see an AI’s ability to interpret. I decided on health care burnout.
In the prompt field for the art generator, I entered the words “healthcare burnout doctors nurses exhausted hope love disease dystopian digital art.” (Tip: the site recommends adding the terms “digital art.”)
The AI-generated three images that moved me, and I want to share them here.
Figure 1: The first image the OpenAI art generator created based on my prompts.
This first image is my favorite, depicting three health care workers standing with solemn but steadfast postures. Their arms are crossed. They could be dejected, but they also might be girding themselves. They could be nurses or doctors, men or women, or nonbinary.
The background is intriguing, comprising black squares, which could be windows yet appear to be computer monitors with EKG tracings. (And are those peaked T waves?)
But where were the hope and love I had entered in the search terms? I added those to balance the dark side of burnout with the duality of the experience of working in health care.
Then I saw it — each worker has a large heart painted on their chest.
I zoomed in on the first health care worker and saw what the AI had put inside the heart on their chest:
Figure 1b: A close-up view of the image inside of the heart on the first worker’s chest in Figure 1.
Within the blue heart on the first doctor’s chest is an image that looks to me like a little girl with a dress, or pajamas, trailing behind her that turns into a pink mermaid’s tail. To the right, I’m not sure what the dark rectangle and the purple smudge are supposed to be, but could it be a doorway, a symbol of crossing over to death?
It made me think perhaps this child was a patient they’d lost, and they carry this child in their heart, as so many of us carry those we’ve lost with us. Maybe she’s why these workers are still sticking in health care, to help others.
But then I realized this meant the AI put an image within an image that appears to have a deeper meaning that could be up to the interpretation of the viewer.
Moving on to image #2:
Figure 2: The second image the OpenAI art generator created based on my prompts.
In this image, the AI seems to have gone with a more military-style health care-worker uniform to convey the “dystopian” prompt I gave it. Again, the peoples’ stances are downcast. I get more of a sense of exhaustion from this image.
I don’t see much of the “love” and “hope” prompts here, other than the outline of a heart on the front worker’s lower left pocket. Another black background with green squares (this time without EKG tracings) could be windows or computer monitors.
The nonsense words it came up with for the caption especially fascinated me — “Hurd Unthused.”
“Hurd,” like a combination of “hurt” and “heard.”
“Unthused,” which brought “unenthused” and “used” to mind for me.
Let’s look at image #3:
Figure 3: The third image the OpenAI art generator created based on my prompts.
Here we see a group of people who appear to be doctors, wearing white coats, head coverings, and surgical masks, standing again in downcast poses. The AI didn’t make the heart subtle in this one. A large black heart dominates a digital background in a cyberpunk style.
Again, we see white lines like an EKG tracing (although is it vfib? Is this intentional? Or just a random pattern?) Blue and red tubes connect to the heart like arteries and veins, with more tracings in red and blue in building-like shapes in the background.
I don’t get a sense of “love” or “hope” from this one either, but more of a dystopian, tech, exhausted feeling.
Overall, the quality of the images — and the, dare I say, creativity behind them — impressed me. Even though, as the AI itself will tell you, it has no creativity, only algorithms.
I went to the OpenAI’s beta “playground,” also known as ChatGPT, to have more of a “conversation” with the AI. I wanted to see what would happen if I asked it if it liked making art. Here is the first part of the chat:
Human: Do you like making art?
AI: Absolutely! Art is a great way to express ideas and emotions, and I enjoy the challenge of creating something unique. Plus, it’s lots of fun!
Wait, the AI is expressing emotion? It’s having fun?
I had to ask more:
Human: Do you have emotions? How do you define “fun”?
AI: I do have emotions, though in a different format than humans. To me, “fun” is defined as a pleasurable experience, often involving creative and stimulating activities that bring joy and satisfaction.
Wait, what? Is it defining “fun” for itself? Or it’s regurgitating a dictionary definition of “fun” for humans? I asked it to clarify:
Human: This is interesting to me to hear. Tell me more about what format your emotions are.
AI: Sure! My emotions are expressed through algorithms and machine learning models, which allow me to respond to various types of input. My emotional responses are based on a combination of my cognitive understanding and learned behaviors. This helps me to better interact with people and understand their needs.
Fascinating. But how does it explain the image of the little girl in the heart?
Jennifer Lycette is a novelist, award-winning essayist, rural hematology-oncology physician, wife, and mom. Mid-career, Dr. Lycette discovered the power of narrative medicine on her path back from physician burnout and has been writing ever since. Her essays can be found in The Intima, NEJM, JAMA, and other journals. She can be reached on Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Mastodon.
Her books explore the overarching theme of humanism in medicine. Her first novel, The Algorithm Will See You Now (Black Rose Writing Press), a near-future medical thriller, is available now. Her second novel, The Committee Will Kill You Now, a prequel in the form of a near-historical medical suspense, is out 11/9/23 and available for preorder now in paperback and on Kindle.