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Instacart quietly deletes its unsettling AI-generated food pics

Jake Swearingen   

Instacart quietly deletes its unsettling AI-generated food pics
  • Instacart confirmed on Sunday it was using AI-generated imagery and recipes.
  • The results were very weird: Chickens were conjoined, hot dogs looked like tomatoes, and more.

Instacart scrubbed some AI-generated food images after a Business Insider article on the delivery company's use of AI. The images began raising eyebrows on the Instacart subreddit in early January, when users started to compile their favorite absurdities.

The AI images featured physically impossible compositions, unnatural shadows, and strangely blended textures. For instance, pictures accompanying a recipe for "Chicken Inasal" showed two chickens conjoined at the shoulder, while the "Hot Dog Stir Fry" photo showed a slice of hot dog with the interior texture of a tomato.

All of the recipes highlighted in the earlier BI article appear to have been taken down from the Instacart website. Other recipes discovered by Reddit users, meanwhile, had the AI-generated images replaced with what appears to be stock photography. (Take for instance, an AI-generated photo for "Simple Steamed Broccoli Crowns" which attempted to put notched crowns in the stems of broccoli, and is now replaced by a generic image of cooked broccoli.)

Some AI-generated imagery was still live on Instacart's site as of Wednesday. The recipe for "Cheddar and Cream Cheese Sauce for Mac and Cheese" for instance, appears to be AI-generated, with a bizarre plating scheme, overly uniform lighting, and a pasta shape previously unknown to human cooks.

Instacart publicly discloses that the photos and accompanying recipes were generated by AI, emphasizing that user discretion is advised.

On Sunday, an Instacart spokesperson confirmed that imagery was AI-generated, adding that the company was "optimizing for the best user experience" to align with consumer expectations as generative AI technology matures.

An Instacart spokesperson said generative AI is new, and the company continuously works to improve its product. "When we receive reports of AI-generated content that does not deliver a high-quality consumer experience, our team reviews the content and may remove it," they said in a comment given after publication

AI-generated food images have been employed elsewhere for online ordering. A startup is using text-to-photo technology to create AI imagery based just on menu descriptions to help restaurants build out online menus without paying for photography. More recently, users found what appeared to be AI-generated imagery on Uber Eats where the AI seemingly failed to realize a pizzeria offering a "medium whole pie" meant a pizza, not a sweet dessert.

A June 2023 survey of 301 consumers showed respondents felt generative AI imagery was aesthetically pleasing but untrustworthy. For now, AI-generated images remain relatively easy to detect with the human eye. But as generative AI models rapidly improve and companies strive to bring down costs, the point rapidly approaches when they won't be.

January 31, 2024, 5:00 pm ET: The story has been updated with comment from Instacart.

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