Sep 15 2022

AI Art Is Here

Recently an artist names Jason Allen won the Colorado State Art Fair’s competition in the category of digital art with a picture (shown) that was created by an AI, the Midjourney software. This has triggered another round of angst over computers taking our jobs. Some have declared it the end of art, or that it will destroy the jobs of working artists. This development can certainly be a job-killer, but we have to get over it. This, in my opinion, is just an extension of the advance of technology, which ruthlessly destroys jobs while creating new jobs and opportunities. We should not waste a moment shedding tears about those lost jobs, but rather put our energy into adapting to the new reality.

I do think it is reasonable to consider AI artists as just another form of automation and using tools to enhance our ability to create stuff. We can go back to just before the industrial revolution, when, for example, a highly skilled wood worker would make a chair entirely by hand. Even by then automation had had an effect – a productive shop would likely have an assembly line where specialists focused on different aspects of making the chair. Lathes and other tools were used to speed the process and improve precision, but still a great deal of technical skill, developed over years, was required. But soon the job of the highly skilled woodworker would be destroyed (outside of historical theme parks) by machines. A high-quality wooden chair can be made without the need of a single skilled woodworker, assembled by people who only need the skill to operate the machinery. At the time such products were denigrated as cheap knockoffs for the masses.

There are countless such examples. Getting closer to the artistic realm – do you take photographs with either your phone or a dedicated camera? Do you manually set the ISO, f-stop, aperture setting, or measure ambient light levels? Unless you are a professional photographer, the answer is likely no. Computer chips in the camera can do all of that for you. Even professional photographers will use these automated features – they rarely will measure light levels, for example, but let the camera do it. The point is that technology has reduced the technical skill necessary to take a good picture. Now, all you have to do is focus on the composition – the more artistic and creative aspects of photography.

This is a general trend with technology – as we develop more sophisticated machines, old technical skills become unnecessary. Although some new technical skills have taken their place, in order to use the machines that replace the old technical skills. This is an advance. It should not be lamented, or denigrated, or looked upon as an existential threat. We have to adapt. Granted, the need to adapt is getting faster and faster, and that can be an issue, but we have no choice.

What we are seeing now with art is that AI programs are able to replace much of the necessary technical skill. You don’t need to have a special talent, or spend years developing specific technical skills, in order to create professional-looking art. AI can do all that for you. Of course, people with those technical skills are going to cringe at this development, and I get that. But what do they imagine is going to happen? Are we going to ban the technology to protect the value of these now obsolete skills? What this development does, in my opinion, is primarily two things. It opens up artistic expression to a greater number of people, lowering the entry point by eliminating the need to develop technical skill. It also shifts the artistic contribution to the more abstract. It’s now all about the content, composition, underlying artistic expression. It’s all about the vision, and not about having the technical skill necessary to express that vision.

But there is some nuance here worth exploring. These AI art systems work by scraping millions of images from the internet in order to train their algorithms. The programs can mimic the style of human artists, although with new expressions of that style. Artists complain that the AIs are copying their style, and literally learning off their creative works. This means that the AI art is necessarily derivative. However, all art is ultimately derivative, and you cannot copyright a style. So is this really any different? It’s disruptive, no doubt, but I don’t think that artists ultimately have a legal or ethical leg to stand on. Perhaps they may be able to fight for the right to opt their art out of these AI programs training data. That’s an interesting question, if it’s practical.

As the BBC reports – “Sci-fi artist Simon St√•lenhag tweeted that AI art revealed, the ‘kind of derivative, generated goo .. our new tech lords are hoping to feed us’.” That is pretty much exactly what woodworkers said about the new mass-produced alternative. Most art is already derivative “goo”. As others interviewed for the same article point out, this kind of art is tedious “soulless” work anyway. Ultimately, that is what automation does – it frees us from tedious work so we can focus on the more creative aspects of any task. The same will happen here. The value will be in the creative aspect of art, not the tedious work of generating them.

Also, I think there will always be a market for hand-made art. This won’t have much of an effect on high-end art, other than creating a new category of AI assisted art. It will dramatically affect the way we mass-produce art. If a company or person needs a logo, or a T-shirt design, or even illustration for a graphic novel, they can source their art from AI without having to pay an artist. That end of the market will be devastated by this technology. No matter what you think about this, there is no way to avoid it. I personally think it’s a waste to continue to do things the “old way” just to protect jobs that are no longer needed. But also I think that the people who now fill those jobs can learn new skills – incorporate the AI software into their creative process. Become so good at using these new tools that they produce results better than what the average person can.¬† But sure, there aren’t as many woodworkers around today.

My final point is that I think this technology is a net positive. It is a great example of the creative destruction that technological advance typically brings. We can think of ways to ease the transition, but we should not entertain delusions of sticking with outdated technology to avoid the destruction part. The creative part is a net benefit.

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