Computers, as a rule, don’t wear any clothes.

An image-generative AI can be trained to replicate superficial aspects of clothing, but it can’t truly capture the lived-in experience, the how and why and where of fashion, or the interaction between conceptual clothing and the human mind.

The AI can generate images of clothed figures, but only a skilled human hand can craft an image that evokes, in a viewer, the weight and tug of an outfit on a human body or the feeling of textures against human skin.

Computers, as a rule, have no body. Computers, as a rule, have no skin.

Certainly, an AI can’t understand the social phenomenon that is laundry day. No computer has ever experienced a laundry day that’s been procrastinated for so long that the bottom of the drawer is reached and the depths of the closet disgorges items that are only fit for standing beside a washing machine while better clothes are spinning behind a glass portal.

Computers, as a rule, don’t do laundry. At least, not yet.

I wrote an essay last week about the role of a humble pair of medieval underwear, discarded as a rag, used to produce rag paper, turned into a Gutenberg Bible and subsequently regarded as one of humanity’s greatest treasures. In my vision of future publishing, the blockchain fills the role of that underwear. The medium achieves its full power by enabling a message that was previously impossible to propagate.

To add some visual appeal to the metaphor, I prompted an AI to imagine a floating pair of underwear in a futuristic environment. A series of refinements that got me the image I ultimately used, but the very first image, one that should not exist, was the one I’m calling “Laundry Day.”

What I asked for:

What I got:

Image generative AIs excel at churning out “sexy lady in scimpy outfit” pics. For any given prompt, there’s a non-zero chance that the results will include a “sexy lady in scimpy outfit.” Ask for a rabbit and you may get a “sexy lady in scimpy outfit holding a rabbit.” As for a coffee shop interior and you may get a “sexy lady in scimpy outfit sipping a latte.” This phenomenon has persisted across multiple generations of AI models as a feature rather than a bug.

“Laundry Day” hits different.

Under a dim fluorescent panel, a portable-sized washing machine has a utility sink integrated into its top. The outpainted background includes tile walls, exposed pipes, and a prison-style metallic commode. This futuristic but sparse environment evokes a resource-poor dystopia where light and water are so strictly conserved that no photons or droplets can go to waste.

The lady is posed next to the washer in her laundry day attire: a cropped camisole and baggy drawstring shorts. She has no second load prepared, suggesting that her entire wardrobe fits into the tiny machine except for what she is currently wearing. The ill-fitting shorts are almost certainly not her own, though we’re left to imagine exactly whose they are and how she obtained them.

Subtle traces of glowing circuitry run across the side of the lady’s torso. Dark marks on her arms resemble QR-codes or ID-chips more than typical tattoos. If she is human, she is not entirely organic. If she is a machine, she is a machine with branded skin. She is a machine with minimal clothes. She is a machine that does its own laundry, as imagined by a machine with no such experience.

My first impression on seeing this image was, “Laundry day, I know how that is. I know what she must be thinking. I know what she must be feeling. This feels true to life.” I’ve seen my share of AI-generated “sexy lady in her underwear” pics, but never one that I could empathize with.

Computers, as a rule, don’t evoke empathy.

And yet, for once, this one did.

I found myself wondering about the society in which this scene was set, a utility-focused world where an in-unit laundry serves as a conservation measure rather than a luxury. Communal laundromats don’t exist, and wouldn't be missed, perhaps because social interaction is limited. What role does this woman play in her society of isolation and scarcity? Is she a worker drone? Why has she been branded like cattle? Does her circuitry indicate a technological means of control and suppression? Did she choose this life? Was she born into it? How has her society degraded over the course of her lifetime?

Computers, as a rule, have no algorithm for “what if ‘sexy lady in scimpy outfit’ but with an empathetic character and a context that implies a larger world.” This image should not be possible except from a human hand or with extensive prompting from someone with human-level of intent and understanding.

Was it was just me? Would other people see what I was seeing? If not, was I just projecting my own experience onto the image? If so, was the image’s evocative nature some rare effect of random chance, or was it something else?

An LLM can be trained with a feedback loop. When a multitude of human users select their favorite results from a million prompted images, is the resulting data set used to train the next generation of AI?

Computers, as a rule, can’t feel emotions but they can be trained to evoke emotions by finding exploits in the human psyche.

Computers, as a rule, can be trained to manipulate us.

The more we allow the machines to manipulate us, the more effective their manipulation will become. There’s a story behind this image, but to tell it, I first have to allow myself to be manipulated into feeling the emotions of an AI-generated character.

Am I prompting the AI or is the AI prompting me?

It's laundry day, and I need to know what happens next.