A Portrait of Artificial Intelligence

a trend analysis of visual representations of artificial intelligence in media

by nicole hack

Overview of the study

What does artificial intelligence (AI) look like? A robot with red eyes, a plastic line worker, a cybernetic brain, a line of code or does it manifest through sociocultural occurrences in tangible people, places, and things? This study identifies themes in how AI is represented and visualized in the news and participatory media. The study uses science communication theory as well as case studies that identify visual communication as paramount in establishing inclusivity, collaboration, and education for socially-driven technology. With visual media as the focus, this study analyzed two hundred text-based media articles published over a ten year period of varying size, nature, and geography.


The goal of this study was to identify whether there exists a disconnect in AI literacy between text-based information and visual media designed for non-expert audiences, and how visual form is assigned to AI as intangible and a highly representative concept and technology. The results contribute to a larger discourse on how AI is portrayed in, and by science fiction narratives and through connections to private industries. Lastly, this study adds a modern perspective to science communication research by considering participatory media, economies of attention, and emerging technologies as nuanced factors driving AI discourse, and thus its direction.

The visual communication of Science, technology, engineering and mathematics [STEM]

Why is it important to understand the relationship between visual campaigns and visual information for the advancement of STEM in social contexts?  


Anti-GMO campaigns in the 1990s and early 2000s. Led by non-profits and lobby groups, influenced the low adoption of GMOs at the community and government level.

Climate Change

Visual communication strategies helped position climate change as a real and critical issue, and led to greater participation in policy reform and institutional practices.

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Nuclear Power

Imagery from WWII atomic bombs impacted the early adoption of  nuclear energy by highlighting the dangers of nuclear research and innovation, while negating the benefits.


Advocates used imaginative depictions of the technology while it was still relatively young to promote ideas of what it would be and foster imagination.


Visual astronomy had an emotional appeal that was largely successful in drawing in curious attention that lead to more critical engagement with the science behind the beauty

Projects & workshops about AI visualization

What research is being done to identify AI visual communication trends, and what solutions are being generated to improve communication strategies?

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The Noun Project

Collaboration with AI experts and graphic designers to visually represent AI processes.

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The Royal Society

Workshop series to frame how AI narratives intersect in media and AI communication.

Metrics used in this study to identify trends in news and media discourse on AI

Below are the variables used to conduct a trend analysis of 200 news and media articles with subjects relating to AI. Samples were chosen from 2010 - 2020.

Quantity & Positioning

This identifies how visual media is spatially organized in articles as well as how many visual aids are utilized.

type of medium

This refers to the method used to create visual media. Some examples are: photographs, digital illustrations, screenshots, videos, social media posts, charts/graphs/diagrams, scenes from TV shows and films, and infographics.

Content of the visual aid(s)

Refers to the subject of the media itself. What is being depicted? Who is visible? What is the main subject?

Relationship to AI

Identifies how the visual aids relate to artificial intelligence specifically. Is it visualizing AI as a thing? Is it showcasing a product release? Is it unrelated to AI entirely?

Visual composition & degree of Sensationalization

Refers to the visual design of the media, as well as the degree to which the visual aid was sensationalized for impact and attention-grabbing.

Highlights from the study and proposed frameworks


The most used media format was photography. Photographs were used 118 times in the 200 samples. There were general themes that describe the subjects that can be seen in the carousel below.


Primarily, photographs commonly depicted real world occurrences that connect tangible consequences and relationships to AI through commercial products, or social interactions to AI-related people or things. Work automation, intellectual interaction with sentient robots, showcasing AI products and services, or presenting innovations were the most common contexts featured in photographs. Notably, when real humans were featured in photos they were almost unanimously white and male with only the occasional exception. 

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Digital illustrations represented the second most common media type. In this category, visualizations of AI as sentient and highly intelligent were common. Illustrations often took on imaginative, anthropomorphic, and human-robot hybrid forms suggesting relationships or partnerships. Images to the left represent digital illustrations that were emblematic of many other similar images. 

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read the full study

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about the author

In Nicole’s undergraduate degree, she focused on management, business, professional communication, and media production in the context of creative industries. Nicole’s lifelong passion for the creative and performing arts, production, and design has guided her academic journey and fostered her entrepreneurial spirit. Her professional media and production background includes contemporary and competitive dance, theatre production, film production, post production, creative writing, marketing communications, photography, graphic design, and prototyping.


Nicole is currently working on a series of independent and interdisciplinary projects involving physical computing, themed attraction and experience design, artificial intelligence and science communication. She hopes to leverage her diverse range of competencies and expertise as a professional specializing in highly technical, immersive and experiential projects.