AI art and the industrial revolution

Today, I am teaching my students about AI and deep fakes. It’s actually part of the current chapter we’re working on that is about science & technology. Obviously these are children learning a basic amount of English so we won’t have a deep discussion about the ethics of AI art, but I do hope to show them that the technology has gotten to the point where it’s getting scarily accurate. There’s been a lot of talk about AI and its application lately. A streamer got caught paying for deep fake porn of other streamers and that made a big stink. Not long before that did we have a whole lot of people (fairly) complain their art was stolen to train these programs. It’s been a messy process so far and I’ve seen many different opinions about it. So let’s talk about AI technology and the effects it has on our society.

Let’s start with the technology itself. Teaching a computer how to “think” is pretty impressive if you’d ask me. I played around a tiny bit with ChatGPT the other day and it was pretty neat what it could produce. I made it write a story about a little bird. I wrote one myself and had my students write some as well. Today they’ll guess which ones were written by the AI, me, or their classmates. If you know that the stories are written by AI, it’s easy to catch on I think. It seems to lean on tropes where it can. Nothing it writes feels particularly interesting. It just kind of does what you ask it to. But it does that pretty well. When it comes to AI imagery, I’m more impressed. The fact that you can take an existing picture or concept and have this program make several slightly different versions can be really useful in some scenarios. It can show you what the image would look like if you changed a thing here or there, without you having to do the work yourself. This could save artists a lot of time if they incorporate it into the way they work. So the technology itself is pretty cool, but we both know there’s going to be some pushback in the next paragraph so let’s not waste any time to get there.

The problems that I’ve encountered with this recent wave of AI art and programs are threefold. The first problem is probably the one that’s most commonly named. A lot of these programs are trained on data they take from the internet. Individual artists often aren’t compensated for that and even worse, their consent regularly wasn’t asked. Now you have a computer making artwork that looks suspiciously like the art style you worked hard on developing and it’s selling it at a much faster rate and lower price  than you ever could. We’ll get back to this problem when we get to the third problem, but let’s continue with deep fakes for a moment

Deep fakes have been around for a little while and unsurprisingly are being used to create porn. The technology to make it seem like people said or did things that they didn’t do is extremely worrisome. A large portion of the population doesn’t have great media literacy and even those of us who believe we do have that literacy are easy enough to fool by the right technology. When this technology is used to make someone say something that’s a little bit funny that’s not a big deal, but if you can get a quarter of the people who watch a video believe that someone said something extremely hateful, then that will become a problem pretty quickly. I really hope this technology doesn’t get too easy to access because it could make propaganda a thousand times more powerful than it already is and that’s a scary thought I don’t want to think about.

But I’ve saved the big villain of the story for last. And if we’ve learned anything important over the past decade, it’s the fact that the big villain is always capitalism. It took me a little bit of understanding and research to form my opinion on the topic of AI. Initially I was kind of worried about the idea of it replacing art as we knew it. Then I realized that art, in any form, has always been progressing. When I first started writing as a young boy I thought writing with pen on paper was cooler than using a keyboard. I changed my tune on that pretty quickly though. But it is just another tool we can use to further our artistic skills. So if that’s the opinion I reached, where is the problem? The problem is capitalism. I can explain that. If your goal is to make art then you don’t mind if an AI can do something similar or help you along the way. But if your bread is in the art you make, then suddenly that’s a different story. If someone can have a computer program make something that’s of comparable quality to what a trained artist can make but for much cheaper, suddenly you’re no longer able to pay rent. If artists were always in a financially stable situation, I think much of the problems that arise from this technology would be negated by that. At the end of the day, I write stories because I love writing stories. If my stories sell, I wouldn’t need another job and I’d have more time and energy to write stories. If I need a job alongside my writing because some AI can do what I do but ten times as fast and cheap, then suddenly this becomes a problem. If I’m guaranteed a comfortable wage then I would be happy to provide my stories for an AI to learn from. 

When I heard popular streamer Hasanabi talk about this it made me think back to the industrial revolution, so I did quickly want to mention that part. When industry was booming and technological advancements started stacking up, we assumed this meant there would be less and less need for a labor force. We’d all be replaced by robots. The opposite ended up being true. Instead of making for less work, we just started producing much, much more. The profit of this higher production then went to a small group of capital owners and for the rest of the people, not much changed. I reckon similar things will happen with AI. They’ll give us these toys to play with, to teach them and get as much data as possible. Then the owners will turn a profit while not much will change for us. Except artists might be out of a job. Not the most positive of outlooks but I worry it is a realistic one. But maybe you think I’m wrong. If you do, please leave a comment down below with your opinion on AI art and the recent changes in technology. Thanks for reading.

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