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Quoted text is Phil Hahn, not me (Steve Muench).
A surprise can come from a variety of sources: a mentor, a judge, or an AI, etc. A mentor or judge could edit your image to show surprising possible transformations and improvements. Ethically, we treat the surprise as a suggestion to try and not a result to enter into competition; nothing’s changed.
Be careful to differentiate refinements from transformations, though I have been ‘surprised’ by refinements done by Luminar’s AI that would not’ve occurred to me otherwise.
Also, even after an AI has gone thru 100,000 of your images and composited original pixels into surprisingly interesting scenes, one can still recognize or find which photos contain the source elements by simply asking the AI (coming very soon) to display each source photo and highlight the elements used. Then, you can composite something similar yourself. Perfectly acceptable to enter regardless of the source of the idea if you do it with your own labor. To me, the real surprise is the scope, magnitude and scale going from a few judges and mentors to zillions of comparisons and analyses distilled into frequently astonishing results.
We welcome the surprises. We are more likely to learn from surprises than minor tweaks (though seemingly minor tweaks can produce winners).
I love surprises. Shared in competition, it thrills and benefits us all.