Artistic Intelligence and Artificial Intellect

It’s become our habit to use the turning of the year as a time to reflect, to appraise the past trip around the sun, and attempt to implement changes we feel need to happen in our lives. I often find myself ready for a new outlook, and—even though we are typically heading into the coldest part of winter—something to look forward to in my life. 

The last few years have left us all a bit off-kilter in our lives. I feel like we’ve almost seen too much newness. Perhaps it’s time for some good old-fashioned normalcy, but that’s not how humans work: we like the newer, shinier thing, and so we press forward regardless.

About a year ago I started seeing some friends on Facebook posting strange images on their social media. It was expressionistic art I’d never seen before, but there was something oddly familiar about it, and also something underlying it that felt unnerving—as if it was made by extraterrestrials. Turns out that feeling was not too far off the mark. On closer inspection I discovered that the artwork was generated by a new generation of Artificial Intelligence that scoured the internet for images and codified them into databases based on style, subject matter, and a host of other data. From there, a simple query field could spit out a piece of ‘art’ based on, for example; banjo player on a horse in the style of Pablo Picasso. Something we’ve all been lacking in our lives, right?

At about the same time, I started seeing ads online for AI bots that can ‘write effective blog posts in minutes.’ It’s clear that AI has hit the mainstream and is now at the point where it can be monetized to help us produce the truckloads of ‘content’ that the modern algorithm has decided we need. 

There are many problems with this new situation; not the least of which is that our computers are generating content so that a different computer can now decide who to show this computer-generated content to, all while we humans stand waiting to be fed a stream of vaguely disconcerting automatically generated images and text that pick the right words based on the analysis of the ‘average’ found crawling around the internet. The fact that it takes the ‘average’ from the internet should terrify us; it’s algorithmic mediocrity at best. 

The next problem is that these AI generators are taking work away from real creatives, writers, and illustrators who understand the unique complexities of being human and can address them in subtle and poetic ways that a computer cannot. Artists are important to our society, full stop. 

The largest problem, however, is that all of these AIs are using databases filled with images and writing in the unique styles of artists living and dead, and they are using that information without permission from the artists to generate work in their style. In Canada, intellectual property law is clear: our work is protected upon creation, and you cannot legally hire an artist to make a work in another artist’s proprietary style. These bloated databases cannot generate new styles—all they can do is mash up the styles of existing artists into something ‘original’ but derivative, and every one of them is patently illegal. The ongoing use of commercial ‘artistic’ AIs devalues the work of an already undervalued and underpaid segment of our society whose role in our culture is to remind us of the unique and complex qualities of being human, connecting with one another, and understanding the existential moments of life. How can a computer possibly fill that role adequately? 

Is there an argument for an ethically sourced art-generating AI? Sure, the process itself is interesting, and there are creative possibilities that these different tools could give us, but these AI tools need to be sourced from databases of artists who have had a chance to opt in and are compensated adequately for doing so. Underlying all 
of this, however, is the bigger question of the kind of future we want for ourselves, because we have to choose now to stop AI from becoming the primary tool we use to write our songs, compile our news articles, and fill our visual world with mediocre alien work that feels vaguely familiar. 

In the meantime, I’m going to head into my studio like I normally do and create something new and hopeful—and uniquely human. Won’t you join me?