Midjourney’s journey - How a research lab is powering next-gen AI art on Discord

Most of us aren’t painters or digital creators or artists but with Midjourney, all we need is to put our imagination into words and watch it unfold right in front of our eyes.
Priyanshu Anand
May 18, 2023

Midjourney’s journey - How a research lab is powering next-gen AI art on Discord

Most of us aren’t painters or digital creators or artists but with Midjourney, all we need is to put our imagination into words and watch it unfold right in front of our eyes.
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Priyanshu Anand
May 18, 2023

Does imagination begin or end here?

AI is perhaps the most controversial phenomenon of the 21st century. And that’s true for a reason. It’s disruptive, futuristic, fascinating, and most of all, unpredictable. The past few months have brought forward an unprecedented wave of AI tools, leading to a rabbit hole of creativity and thought-provoking innovation. A lot of people are still skeptical of things, a lot are ill-prepared for what’s happening, and those who’ve embraced AI for what it is have understood (at least) that AI might not necessarily replace them but someone using it, will.

With it or against it, you can’t deny the fact that AI is here to stay and not just a phase because the things it’s able to solve have practical connotations that cannot be overlooked. Every function, every department, especially startups during such harsh economical conditions can leverage tools with GPT plugins to not just come up with ideas but complete functional tasks that require nothing but well-crafted prompts.

This brings us to AI-generated artwork which is undeniably beginning to reshape how humanity approaches art. Digital art is no longer restricted to artists and painters and designers but anyone who is eloquent enough to put their imaginative creations into words can now generate art that can hardly be told apart. That begs the question, as Behnaz Farahi says it, “Are we thinking through language when we create? Is being creative complicit with being literate?”. Then again, is this the end of imagination as creativity is merely a prompt away, or is this the beginning of a new era of creative endeavors?

Midjourney’s journey

“In many ways, I wasn’t interested in artificial intelligence (AI) because I did not care much for making machines better. Coming from the IA [intelligence augmentation] school of thought, I’ve always been more interested in empowering people and trying to make people better.” - David Holz, Founder of Midjourney, in an interview with VentureBeat.

David ventured into AI with his first startup, Leap Motion, in 2011. As a designer at heart and an AI connoisseur, he wanted the best of both worlds. He believed in the idea that AI can empower to make people better, who can in turn make better AI.

David started Midjourney as a research project which wasn’t meant to replace artists but rather inspire them to expand their imaginative capabilities and creative ideas. With very few counterparts doing what Midjourney does, it’s really hard to miss it, especially if you’re even a little active on social media. Every once in a while, you stumble across a fascinating piece of art only to discover that it’s AI-generated.

In March of 2022, a Discord server was launched with a request to post high-quality images on Twitter and Reddit for the system’s training. In April of 2022, around the same time as OpenAI introduced DALL-E to the world, a working version (v2) of Midjourney was also launched on the same Discord server. Since then, every few months, Midjourney releases a new version of its AI which produces even better-trained images, quite unbelievably realistic.

Compared to its competitors: DALL-E generates more realistic images while Midjourney chases a more artistic-style image creation. Stable Diffusion is also on the cards as one of the most exciting AI image generator tools, but the only advantage it has over Midjourney is that it’s open-source and can be trained with specific datasets to get what you want.

Creating art, together

Midjourney works differently than other generative AI tools. There’s no app or website for it - everything happens on their official Discord server and David has a strong reason for it: community.

“A lot of people ask us, why don’t you just make an iOS app that makes you a picture? But people want to make things together, and if you do that on iOS, you have to make your own social network. And that’s pretty hard. So if you want your own social experience, Discord is really great.” - David Holz, in an interview with The Verge

There is something about creating things in public - a sense of competition mixed with togetherness. You get to work with things that are already in progress; create something out of something else and let others do the same. If someone comes up with the prompt “elderly engineer”, there’s someone else who might think of “elderly engineer fixing a boat”, and someone else who thinks of “elderly engineer fixing a boat on a sunny afternoon on a lake surrounded by lush green fresh-cut grasses, hyper-realistic”.

Building things together is one of the best community-led approaches to something as humane as creating art. A lot of skepticism around generative AI cannot be overlooked either. Artists think that training AI models from other creators’ art and photographs is in a way a violation of their creativity. Justified, this perspective is, but the idea of something as progressive as Midjourney is not to take away jobs or demoralize artists but rather to empower them into having a more community-led approach to art. When people work on something together, there’s more attached meaning to it than just having a based perspective.

How does it work though?

Midjourney used to offer a Freemium model that gave new users free credits to get started and then they could purchase more credits to continue. But now, there are no free credits and the pricing plan starts from $8/month and goes up to $48/month.

  1. Join Midjourney’s Discord server.
  2. Go to the #general or #newbie channel from the sidebar.
  3. Use the /imagine command to type a prompt. Hit Enter to send it to the Midjourney bot.

And that’s it! That’s how you can generate AI images with Midjourney from their Discord server.

Midjourney almost entirely runs on Discord. If you want any support, the community is there to help you out. Want new ideas, crowd-source. Get FAQs about prompts. Showcase what you created with it. And the best part is - you can enhance others’ art, upgrade the prompts, and just play around with the creativity of the entire community. That’s quite something if you think about it.

Community Showcase

Midjourney officially showcases some of the best art pieces generated with the prompts. And the outcomes are quite fascinating.

The price we pay for progress is change

People have misunderstood AI but rightfully so. Contrary to what most might believe, AI is still nascent, well, technically, AI will always be nascent since it’s always learning. The point is - the explosive growth in AI-powered tools has stirred up quite a conversation amongst the general public. A lot of questions are being raised about the ethical or even moral construct of AI. Could a tool like Midjourney essentially replace designers? Will it lead to a rise in biases or violate human beliefs? There’s definitely a cloud of doubt around this. But when you look at the bigger picture, all this needs is a change in perspective.

David talks about this in the interview with VentureBeat. This is like any revolutionary moment in human history. When we invented cars, we didn’t cut off our legs because cars were faster than us. It’s in fact a medium to get somewhere faster. Which is how we should look at AI. It’s a medium; a way to become better, collectively, as a human race. This is a call for evolution. This is a call for change.

If anything, AI is for the masses. The tool and the prompt, both belong to humans. What AI does is facilitate the process that lies in between. With tools like Midjourney, we’re bridging the gap between creativity and reality. Most of us aren’t painters or digital creators or artists but with a tool like Midjourney, all we need is to put down our imagination into words and watch it unfold right in front of our eyes. It’s fascinating to think of all the things that are possible if we just change perspectives a little.

As for what’s next for Midjourney - what started as a passion project will continue to be lab research with a small team of 10 members. David has expressed explicitly that he doesn’t want to turn this into a corporate organization catering to businesses but rather keep it as a fun, collaborative, and inclusive Discord server where people from all walks of life can run wild with their imagination.

In the interview with The Verge, David talks about how he sees Midjourney and how something that took countless hours of work to create is now possible in minutes. In fact, 1000s of art can be generated in a minute. He got to a point where he was able to generate 40,000 pieces of art in less than 4 hours with different environments and creatures, and that made him feel like he was “drowning”.

“I felt like I was a tiny child, looking into the deep end of a pool, like, knowing I couldn’t swim and having this sense of the depth of the water. And all of sudden, [Midjourney] didn’t feel like an engine but like a torrent of water. And it took me a few weeks to process, and I thought about it and thought about it, and I realized that — you know what? — this is actually water.” - David Holz

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