how to fight back as an artist
Growing up, we had this idea of robots in the future as our servants. They would help us in life, automating tasks we couldn't be fucked doing.
Picture that sassy robot maid Rosie in The Jetsons, dusting, sweeping, and vacuuming:
And this proved true throughout the years. Machines were created to help us. Beep boop.
As humans developed more and more complex machines, it allowed us to automate heaps of industrial processes that once relied on human labour. Enter an ice cream factory, and you'll see a rube goldberg machine line of ice cream being churned, frozen, moulded, and prepackaged into little tubs of creamy deliciousness. Enter any big grocery store and you'll be able to buy your sad potatoes at a self-serve checkout machine rather than with a pimply checkout teen who'd rather be home playing a cat simulator video game. Your robo-vacuum works tirelessly on eradicating dust and grime, affording you time to watch yet another episode of The Office you've seen thrice before.
This is a big win for society, right? Automate the boring stuff.
Leave the humanistic, intellectual, creative pursuits for human beings.
Hmm. But is that correct? Can AI reason and behave just as we do? Can AI create authentic art like we can? As technology grows exponentially, it is becoming clear that AI is capable of outperforming us cognitively too.
In fact we are hot idiots compared to AI.
So how did they get to be so dang smart?
Modern AI is driven by a method called deep learning. Deep learning relies on artificial neural networks that kinda mimic the biological neural networks of the brain. AI is loosely modeled on us! Ok ok ok stay with me here.
Your brain is comprised of billions of neurons. Billions! (Mine however feels it's comprised of these 3 brain cells most days.) Each neuron receives thousands of signals from other neurons. When you read something (like this amazing gorgeous insightful blog post), electrical activity pulses through these interconnected neurons in our brain. Learning new info involves increasing the speed and strength of neuronal communication.
AI's deep learning has a somewhat similar structure.
Let's compare our brains vs deep learning:
AI learning has exploded in the last decade, in both scale and scope.
We're enjoying the fruits of these technologies right now, some of which are weaved into our digital fabric, like:
ChatGPT. Besides the freaken internet, and this one cookies 'n' cream ice cream I had that was like 75+% cookie chunks, ChatGPT is the coolest thing I've ever experienced in my lifetime. It's a Large Language Model (LLM) based on deep learning. Trained on millions and millions of internet texts, from books to articles, it learns the patterns of sentences and then makes a generative prediction of what should come next.
Computer Vision. AI is now able to interpret data from images on a high level. For example, in self-driving cars, computer vision allows for AI to perceive surroundings + identify signs and pedestrians to allow for safe driving. When you unlock your phone using your face, computer vision is being used. Retail stores are trialling computer vision to track customers in an attempt to minimise theft (privacy and AI are pretty much antithetical so be prepared to kiss your privacy goodbye in the upcoming wave).
Gaming. AI can beat chess masters, top Go players, and champion poker players. Woah
When trained right, AI can trump us in cognitive ability. There are still areas in which we dominate, but as AI learning becomes more sophisticated and complex, I think it's totally conceivable that we will be surpassed by superintelligent AI agents.
Now you're probably thinking: dude. kari. I came to read about art. Why do you keep talking about chatgpt and ice cream?
I'm just trying to illustrate just how fast artificial intelligence is improving. It's becoming something we only once saw in geeky sci-fi literature. We predicted that AI would become intelligent, sure. But did we really think much about whether AI could become artists?
CAN AI CREATE REAL ART?
Above is Jason Allen’s AI-generated work, “Théâtre D’opéra Spatial,”.
It won first place in the digital category at the Colorado State Fair. This made many people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.
So is it art?
To answer this, we might have to wax philosophical on what art means.
I'll now commit the sin of analysing why art exists, and discuss whether or not AI could produce such things:
Aesthetic pleasure. A great artwork may serve us by pleasing our senses. When I was in New Zealand I accidentally stumbled across a Pip & Pop exhibition and it was like straight-up eye candy for me. Can AI generate images to achieve the same purpose of sensory delight? Absolutely.
Sparks emotions. Yeah, of course AI art can spark emotions. (As in, every time I see an AI artwork I feel a very momentary twinge of sadness...)
Reflects the zeitgeist in which it was created. In July 1830, King Charles X was overthrown in France. In the same year, Eugène Delacroix painted Liberty Leading the People to commemorate the revolution. It was a painting which immortalised the sign of the times. Could AI create the same type of artworks? For sure! Any artwork created by AI, by its very nature, is a powerful sign of the changing times!
Is an autobiography of the artist that created it. For sure the prompter can incorporate genuine insights into their life in the images they generate.
Of course, there's a 5th category, which is seen on a lower level for purists - Commercial art. Welp, commercial art... sorry, there will be no human artists left in that field. There's no way a company, looking to maximise profits, will pay an artist thousands when they can pay pennies for some generated artwork of canned tuna or whatever. Even stock photography will be replaced by photorealistic AI generations once the technology is sophisticated enough. The only way I think human art will be used commercially is if the reputation of the accompanying artist is grand enough to be monetisable.
YES, AI CAN CREATE GENUINE ARTWORKS. BUT WORSE, IT CAN POTENTIALLY MAKE ART BETTER THAN ANY ARTIST CAN.
As a traditional artist, it makes me a little sad to admit it.
Does the universe care what I think? Fuck no.
But first, I'll explain why AI art could potentially be revolutionary. And at the end of this post I'll explain why this upheaval in art doesn't really bother me.
The lifeblood of the art world is human emotions. We tend to judge art based on whether or not it had some emotional impact on us, or if it resonated with us in some way. The artist, then, can be seen as someone who marries masterful intuition with technical prowess to create a new artwork that is able to evoke some sort of arousal in the viewer.
We used to think AI could never touch art, since intuition is a purely humanistic capability, right? Intuition is just when you know something is right without consciously figuring out why it is right. You could use your intuition to paint an artwork that feels true to you, without knowing exactly why. You could just see Van Gogh's Starry Night for the first time and intuitively love the painting without knowing why. You could meet a stranger and have a bad intuition about them without knowing why.
However, perhaps intuition isn't as mystical as we believe. Intuition can ultimately be reduced down to pattern recognition, probability calculation, and subconscious perception. Your brain picks up details automatically when you use your intuition. Maybe you see a stranger and a chill runs down your spine. You don't know why -- without realising, you could have subconsciously detected a specific micro-expression in them. Maybe you've seen this micro-expression exhibited in countless unsavoury characters you've met before (pattern recognition). Then probabilistically, this person could signify danger.
Now let's apply this to AI and Art. An AI based on deep learning could hypothetically be trained on millions of artworks and their impact on the world. It could then produce a single brilliant artwork possessing elements that evoke a calculated profound emotional impact for the most amount of people.
Crazier still, it could target people on an individual level by analysing their biometric data and showing them the most suitable artwork for their emotional needs. DUDE. Think about it. Imagine if you could hook up your spotify to your fitbit. A machine learning algorithm would then identify what specific concoction of biometric data would be necessary to maximise your happiness in that very moment, and recommend you a song based on that.
I've actually been intermittently pausing while typing this, because I'm trying to find the damn perfect background song! Imagine if I could hook up algorithms to my body and automate my musical decision-making! (My simple human brain has settled on phonk. Clearly my current decision-making algorithms are subpar.)
Dystopian for sure, but who could resist?
THE ARTIST BEHIND THE AI - THE GHOST IN THE MACHINE?
"But WAIT KARI! Or whatever your damn name is," you scream. "Sure, AI can create great artworks. But humans will forever be the ones controlling them. We have to prompt them with what art to generate. It'll be, like, a symbiotic relationship."
Ok, fake-devils-advocate-person-I-made-up-for-the-purposes-of-this-post, good point. But is there absolutely no future we can envision where AI has complete autonomy over their actions - or at the very least, very minimal human input? At what percentage of involvement do we stop being artists in our AI collab?
I swear this is a relevant story so pls read it.
I once met up with a stranger for dinner. It was at a really cool underground bar that was designed to look like we were drinking swanky cocktails in a lush rainforest (this detail isn't relevant, I just wanted to gush about this cool-ass bar, okay).
He was a software engineer. He was, but probably still is, too.
I asked him, "Do you think AI will take your job?
"No," he confidently replies. "Absolutely not."
I lean in closer, bursting with curiosity. "Why not?"
"I've used AI in my job before. Sure, it helped with coding. But you know, I had to really direct it to do what I wanted. There will always be a need for a human director."
"But dude, what makes you think that AI can't become intelligent enough to be the director? If AI is intelligent enough to code, why can't it be intelligent enough to code what to code? What stops AI from being able to do everything you're capable of doing now? What stops it from being a coder, a prompter, a director? Can it be a turtles-all-the-way-down situation?"
(Of course, I was in no way this articulate in person. Actually I'm not sure if I even did anything besides wipe drool from my slack-jawed mouth.)
It seems clear to me, then, the debate is over this grey area - the ratio of human contribution to AI contribution of any given artwork. No one will cry foul when an artist draws something, scans it to a digital format, and then modifies the saturation on photoshop by 5%. That's still art, baby. But the pitchforks come out when one generates a whole ass artwork from a single sentence.
What then, when we come to the point where AI develops significant autonomy and an artwork has 0% human contribution?
HOW TO BE AN ARTIST IN A POST-HUMANIST WORLD
I can think of 3 big ways us human artists can exist happily in this brave new world.
I have another story to tell! Come closer!
I was in an art museum. I walked into a big white room. In the centre, there were around a hundred balls of various types and sizes. Some were rubbery, others were... not. There were basketballs, tennis balls, bouncy balls, golf balls. Did I mention there were balls? Trust me, balls were there.
I was like ok... cool exhibition bro, but not really. I was about to move on when I spotted the plaque. It revealed that each ball in front of me had been stolen at different times in different locations.
The meaning of the artwork instantly changed for me. I felt weird knowing this. I examined the balls again. I started imagining the artist as a sneaky ball thief, wrestling a tennis ball from an innocent pug.
Humans are meaning machines. We love the stories behind things. Stories colour our world and make things meaningful for us. And meaning is the substance the soul subsists on.
Yeah sure, AI may be able to make art better than us one day. But simply knowing that an artwork was made by a human or AI colours our perception of it. If I find out an artwork was human-created, it creates totally different stories in my head. I wonder what their life events lead them to choose to paint predominately in pinks and yellows. I wonder why they chose to paint a frog. I wonder why they decided to spend 69 hours painting it instead of using AI to generate it in a minute.
Okay, second point.
Art now becomes more meaningful for the artist on a personal level. Why? Because the end product doesn't matter as much anymore when AI can just one-up us. The process matters. By process I mean the act of creation in itself. The joy of getting lost in a painting for hours and all of a sudden realising it's 1 am. The joy of planning the composition of a painting and being totally satisfied with it. The joy of the last brushstroke. The absolute ecstasy of having a vision stuck in your head for weeks on end, and being able to brainvomit it onto a canvas. Damn! How lucky are we that we can experience this at all!
This ecstasy is still very much available to us, even when our AI overlords take over (but probably not when they completely enslave us).
Onto my last point and perhaps the most controversial one.
You don't need to make art to be an artist.
All you need to be an artist, in the age of AI, is to be conscious.
Art is creation. That's all it is. It's the act of bringing in something new to reality. It usually involves synthesising pre-existing phenomena to create something of metaphysical substance. To be an artist is to be a first mover/God in this reality.
Human beings are conscious agents. Consciousness is the one quality that fundamentality distinguishes us from high-functioning AI.
Consciousness is an active process whereby we synthesise sensory information to create the perception of reality.
In other words, when we are conscious of reality, we are actually actively creating reality! Consciousness is the ultimate act of creation.
Contrast this with the aforementioned computer vision, which is passively fed data and generates information based on that data.
Of course we have always had this ability, but our ability to do so totally changes in the context of AI. French philosopher Derrida was famous for his idea of différance which stated that the meaning depends on its difference to its context. In the past there wasn't really such a thing as a non-conscious intelligent agent. Now that there is, consciousness takes on a new meaning in its difference to context.
If we take this to be true then it is clear how creatives should play in this new landscape. And that is to just be cool and creative and live life and get in the fuckin frog pit!!!