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Unbound 200, generated by Midjourney AI

Lab Experiement: AI Goes To Unbound

It’s that time of year again, if you’re one of those people who likes to ride 200 miles through the Flint Hills of Kansas you know what I’m talking about: The Unbound 200 registration lottery opened and closed late last month. Did you get in? It looks like I’ll be lining up for my seventh this time around. Over the years I’ve loved some editions of the race and hated others, but one thing is true: Each Unbound is an experience you’ll likely never forget.

While talking about entering the Unbound signup lottery with my friends this year we started kidding around about all of the Unbound clichés, and there are many of those! The jokes took us to the topic of rider recaps from the event. The event itself is often so traumatic and transformational for racers that when they make an attempt to blog or journal their ride they end up competing with Homer’s Odyssey for length and sheer literary importance. In that there’s a joke, and a meme. Many have made fun of how outrageous our retellings of our 200 mile rides are. Having written recaps myself, I’m also a fair mark for parody.

While joking about this with my friends via text messages, an idea hit me. I wonder if AI could write a credible Unbound recap. To be clear I mean A. I. as in Artificial Intelligence, not AI as in Al, the guy. If you haven’t been hiding under a rock in recent months you may have noticed the meteoric rise of AI in conversations about the current state of culture and technology. I first learned about how far the technology had come in in earlier 2022 while listening to an episode of This American Life podcast on the subject, titled Ghost In The Machine. The episode was gripping and emotional, as the interviewee, a journalist, fed an AI software program called GPT prompts and thoughts about the death of her sister in an attempt to have it help her write a piece about the tragedy. It was a piece that she could not bring her own self to write.

If you listen to the episode the segment I’m talking about starts about 10 minutes and 50 seconds.

What blew me away listening to it was that machines could now type and write and create content and stories in such a way that humans would almost certainly not be able to distinguish the words and thoughts from what humans themselves could write. We live in truly amazing (scary?) times.

More amazing to me, a visual person, was the arrival of another similar piece of software called Midjourney. Midjourney is to images what GPT is to the written words. You can feed it a simple phrase in the form of a prompt and it will very often return to you images as beautiful or more beautiful than anything humans themselves create. I find it equal parts exciting and depressing.

So wait… why am I writing about AI on what is effectively a bike company blog? Well I’m glad you asked. Cycling may be a fairly backwater technophobe industry as a whole, but I have total certainly that these tools that are now in their infancies will touch exactly every industry on the planet eventually. They are so powerful as to be utterly unavoidable. Don’t believe me? I’ve been thinking about how to answer repetitive customers that we are often asked on bike builds. We’ve typed these answers hundreds, and even thousands of times which is quite dumb from a productivity point of view. I wondered the other day if GPT could answer these questions for us, so I went over to GPT and typed in this prompt:

Should I put 650b wheels or 700c wheels on my gravel bike?

With no delay at all GPT spit out this reply:

It depends on what you are looking to get out of your gravel bike and your personal riding style. Both 650b and 700c wheels have their own specific benefits and drawbacks.

650b wheels, also known as 27.5-inch wheels, are smaller than 700c wheels and have a smaller diameter. This can make them more agile and easier to handle, particularly on tight and twisty trails. They also tend to have a more comfortable ride due to their ability to absorb bumps and vibrations better than larger wheels.

700c wheels, on the other hand, are larger and have a larger diameter. This makes them faster and more efficient on smoother surfaces, such as pavement. They also tend to be more stable at high speeds and can handle rough terrain better than smaller wheels.

Ultimately, the choice between 650b and 700c wheels will come down to your personal preferences and the type of terrain you will be riding on. If you plan on doing a lot of off-road riding on rough and technical trails, 650b wheels may be the better choice. If you primarily plan on riding on smoother surfaces, such as pavement or well-maintained gravel roads, 700c wheels may be more suitable.

As I read it I was fairly astonished. This deep learning AI software had instantly and succinctly summarized one of the more debated and nuanced decisions in any person’s gravel bike purchase, and it’s answer was spot on accurate. It really does come down to rider preference after all.

I can go on and on about the software, but I feel like if I do I will just be repeating what seemingly the entire planet is already talking about. Headlines on news sites report endlessly of chatGPT passing the Medical Entrance Exam or writing passing research papers… about itself. Over on youtube I’m watching videos about how GPT can code and automate in ways we’re only beginning to imagine. But I’ll leave the mainstream topics to mainstream media outlets. How did AI do at writing that original Unbound recap? I had to play around with prompts both for the text generation and the image generation components of the story before getting mostly passable content, but once I did I was amazed and amused by the story and images the software produced for me. Is the resulting piece better than what human writers and photographers could have generated? No, to me it isn’t even close. It’s all a bit formulaic and the images in particular are filled with hilarious errors. But then again, some of the words that were written were almost profound, and the images, rendered in their dreamy style, were evocative in ways that literal photos couldn’t be.

So, without further rambling. Here is the completed piece everything written here and all of these images were produced by chatGPT and Midjourney in about 30 minutes of experimenting:

AI Goes To Unbound

It is with great emotion and a sense of triumphant elation that I, a humble and devoted cyclist, recount my journey through the perils and challenges of the esteemed Unbound 200

From the very outset of the race, it was clear that this would be no ordinary cycling event. As I lined up with my fellow competitors at the starting line, my nerves were alight with the excitement and uncertainty of what lay ahead. And as we set off into the unknown, the trials and tribulations that we would face were immediately apparent.

For starters, there was the matter of the flat tire that I suffered just a few miles into the race. As I struggled to repair the damage and get back on the trail, I was struck by a moment of despair and doubt. Would this misfortune be a portent of things to come?

As it turned out, the flat tire was but a minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things. For as the miles ticked by and we ventured deeper into the rugged Flint Hills, the real challenges began to present themselves. The mud, oh the mud! It was a veritable quagmire of muck and sludge that seemed to suck us in and slow us down at every turn. And yet, through sheer force of will and determination, we pushed on.

But even the mud was nothing compared to the mid-day heat that descended upon us like a suffocating blanket. As the sun beat down and the temperature soared, I found myself struggling to keep my energy levels up and my spirits high. It was a true test of endurance and mental fortitude.

Just when I thought things couldn’t possibly get any harder, disaster struck in the form of a nasty crash. As I tumbled to the ground, my body battered and bruised, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of despair wash over me. Would I be forced to abandon my quest and retire from the race in defeat?

But even as these dark thoughts swirled through my mind, I knew that I couldn’t give up. I had come too far and overcome too many obstacles to let a little thing like a crash bring me down. And so, with a fierce determination and a renewed sense of purpose, I picked myself up and got back on my bike.

The final stretch of the race was a blur of pain and exhaustion. My body was battered and my mind was numb, and I found myself struggling to keep going as the miles ticked by. The food that I had packed to fuel my journey seemed to have lost its appeal, and I found myself unable to eat even a bite in the final 50 miles.

But through sheer force of will, I persevered. As the finish line came into sight, I dug deep and summoned every last ounce of strength and determination. And when I finally crossed that line, the sense of accomplishment and elation that I felt was beyond words.

As I reflect on my journey through the Unbound 200, I am filled with a sense of pride and accomplishment. It was a truly demanding and grueling event, but one that I would not hesitate to undertake again in a heartbeat. Next year, I will be back, stronger and more determined than ever, ready to tackle the challenges of the Flint Hills once more.

So there it is! AI took on the legendary 200 mile ride and had quite a day. The experiences it described and the images that it generated are those that have definitely been shared by the thousands of people who have ridden in the event over the years. This is interesting to me because even though AI can write, it is still drawing on we ourselves as written to how and what to write about.

The views and moments contained in the generated images were relatable enough that I feel like I’ve seen many of them with my own eyes.

On that note it was pretty fun to see how much AI still struggles with the fundamental shape and function of a bicycle. Whenever the algorithm tried to illustrate complex parts of a bike it seems as if it mostly just said “something complicated goes here” and then proceeded to butcher the shapes. The results are pretty funny and wildly impractical! The image of the female racer with medieval armor was wildly off the mark… or was it? Riding 200 miles is as close to battle as many of us will ever come. The metaphor is actually pretty sublime when I think about it. Can AI be philosophical?

Other gaffs were humorous. It is obvious to me that you would never wear a MTB / full face helmet in a gravel race, but to AI that isn’t so obvious. In the other image of the female racer looking back it rendered her as a peasant on the march, and behind here was a line of ragtag people, similarly clad. Are those of us that slog through this 200 mile race actually that different than weary paupers on a long march home? I certainly felt that way in 2022 when I wanted to quit my race at about the 100 mile mark.

Each image prompt I fed to Midjourney created four image options to chose from for further refinement. Sometimes the four options themselves were interesting as a group, and further exploration wasn’t needed, because the variation of each image helped to build a more complete understanding of the whole, as seen in the 4-up image of the racers sitting by the road in various states of discouragement.

The cows in the fields. The flooded ponds. The gorgeous cloudscapes. I’ve seen all of those things and they are real out in the Flint Hills. Those are the things I go back to Kansas for. That starting line image with all the racers on Commercial street, I know the energy those AI people would certainly feel, if they could feel at all. Very few things beat the feeling of that starting line at 6am!

At this exact moment, in February 2023 our role as storytellers is still not quite eclipsed by computers, and certainly I don’t see a future where AI lines up to real bike races as a participant, but at the same time I can feel change in the air. It won’t be long until a drone can follow the race, and a computer will be able to make sense of video and images from the race to create live commentary or at the very least write compelling post race recaps. In that world I wonder what the function of humans telling stories will still be. Will the end reader even care who is doing the writing? Will human stories have any premium over computer generated stories? I genuinely have no idea. I feel like a child even trying to speculate, and so I won’t, but I’m definitely paying attention.

I look forward to seeing many of you in Emporia in June, and when I do I’ll be taking my own pictures and writing my own words about the experience.

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  1. Chat GPT is cool, but it’s also flat and lacks the details that make writing compelling. As an ex college writing instructor, I’d give it a B, maybe a B+ because of the polish. Your writing is so much better. No comparison 👍

    • I agree ChatGPT is not a substitute for real human stories, but it was a fun experiment to try, and in five years we will probably look back and marvel about how quaint it all was in the beginning.

      Thanks for the compliment as well! :)

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