As I’m sure you haven’t missed, there’s been a swell of chat around content-generating AI since the launch of the artificially intelligent, text-generator, ChatGPT last year. (I just had to name-check it as that’s how uninterested I am in using it.) I’ve been doing a pretty good job at keeping my head in the sand, but now, my friends, it’s time to address this bot thing head-on.
Thieving art botsThe first time I realised I should really take notice of AI was about a month ago, when a fellow illustrator posted a link to this site, which informs creatives whether their art has been used to train bots. I sat up straighter than when I saw Prince silently float past my table outside an empty bar about 20 years ago. (My company and I were all the similes: rabbits in headlights, cats got our tongues etc. He was positively Godlike.) To me, the very fact that whoever trains the bots is using art made by humans that sweated over the creation of it - and without respectfully checking with them - seems fundamentally not OK. (The Association of Illustrators seems to agree and has recently released a statement to this effect.) It’s very different to one artist being deeply inspired by another, or somebody re-interpreting work in a post-modern kinda way. There is real skill, and genuine appreciation of what came before, in human creativity.
So, what's wrong with AI?
I’ve examined my fear and I can see it clearly comes from three places.
Firstly, I’m worried about my job. And I know a lot of writers, artists, illustrators, designers and creative people are. Put us all together and that’s a lot of livelihoods the robots have the potential to crush.
AI will be able to generate acceptable text, music and art for much cheaper, which will undoubtedly push us man-made artists to up our games. Don’t get me wrong, a challenge is never a bad thing, but I worry that only the absolute legends in each field will survive. I suppose what remains to be seen is whether businesses will essentially value the work of a human, over the digital vomming of a bot.
Secondly, I am deeply, deeply concerned about the upcoming generations. AI and digital developments are already removing from us the not-exactly-enormous effort taken to remember how to spell, read a whole book (God forbid), find a heart-felt present for a friend, and even moving from your chair to turn on a light.
Let me just say at this point that I absolutely see the benefits in AI in helping those with a disadvantage, so the life-enhancing opportunities these systems give to those with dyslexia or physical disabilities, for example, are wonderful. My beef is with the possibility of AI ‘assistance’ becoming so main-stream that we slowly, but surely, turn into the version of humanity in Wall-E, buying what and when we’re told and utterly unable to think for ourselves. (It’s a stonkingly brilliant film for both adults and kids, if you’ve never seen it.)
We are all aware of our instincts telling us we need to slow life down, not speed it up. And why are we so hell-bent on making up ways to stop thinking for ourselves? In a world that’s already plagued with digitally-induced issues such as daily mental wrangling over screen addictions and heightened social tensions as a likely result of online echo-chambers, is this really the way forward?
And then there’s the question of why is this being pushed on us all. Are people / businesses adopting it because they’ve heard a Californian silver fox in jeans that “it’s the future!”? Are people really thinking this through, with the long-game in mind? Who genuinely wants it? Who wants our art and communication to become like our sad high-streets: soulless and predictable? Answers on a postcard please.
Are people adopting it because they are being told by a Californian, silver fox in jeans and a black T-shirt that “it’s the future!”? Are people really thinking this through, with the long-game in mind?
Thankfully, however, the uneasy feeling about the arrival of AI that I’ve been holding in my stomach has been kicked to the side. I’ve spoken to friends, done some reading and now see that actually, whis ‘whole thing’ may actually work in the favour of people that rate humans over machines, like me. For a start, in my experience, no one seems very excited about it. In fact, most people talk about it with a resigned roll of their eyes. And just like TV didn’t kill radio, and Kindle didn’t kill paper books, AI will not take over. I’m sure of it. And here’s why.
AI needs humans
First I spoke with my clever friend Robin . He reads a lot of digital nerd-stuff and calmed me right down by explaining that I haven’t acknowledged the one vital ingredient that AI creative bots don’t have: an initial concept. For example, it’s all very well to ask a bot to make an illustration of an elephant, reading Private Eye on the loo in the style of Picasso, but where did that idea come from? Ahaaah. A human! Phew. We still have a purpose.
This made me think of Roald Dahl’s wonderful book The BFG in which our friendly giant calls people ‘human beans.’ Would a bot ever think of something like that - in the same context - and get it so brilliantly funny and, well, right? Unlikely. Plus, would the elephant reading Private Eye on the loo in the style of Picasso, look any good? The general consensus on this seems to be that AI art is all a bit dead behind the eyes. You see, these bots don’t have a lifetime of human living, culture, nuance and humour to draw on. They are not stimulated and excited by a different combination of sights, sounds, smells, feels and ideas like us. Our experiences shape us and make every one of us unique and interesting. Bots are generic, useful and binary. Isn’t the very beauty of creativity, in the first place, the fact that it was created by a human with a different take on life to us?
Clever Robin also pointed me to this really entertaining response from Nick Cave, to a fan who asked ChatGPT to write song lyrics in the style of the musician. What I love about this is that it not only highlights that (for now) creative AI has only just gone to nursery, but it may well always be there. How frustrating for it.
Then I spoke to a psychologist, who told me that her pier had been part of an AI therapy trial. There are so many things wrong with this, my brain starts melting just thinking about where to start, but as you can imagine the trial was abandoned very early on due to innate and numerous failings!
This article on generative AI also helped widen my view and helped me see that in-person interaction and general humanness will become more important than ever. Covid and its darn lockdowns was a stark reminder of how much human beans truly need to see, hear, touch, smell and be in the presence of each other. There is already a huge move towards anti-screen and analogue living, increasing the digital-human void.
We will likely see a swarm of bot-generated content online, resulting in a massive dulling-down of the internet. At first this will just be mighty annoying, but as AI improves, we may stop knowing what’s been digi-vommed by computers or crafted by living beings. And when that happens, who (or what) can we trust? (Some think the tinterweb is dead already. Others think it's just mostly been hijacked by bots). Artificial intelligence will only increase digital wariness, pushing us closer together again.
So perhaps AI is actually doing us a favour. Perhaps we are (yet again) over-complicating everything: making life harder for ourselves and highlighting the basic, simple things that we’ve believed we’re bigger than for so long. We need food, water, eye-contact and love. We need nature. We need to value others, and we need to feel valued. Let’s not lose sight of that. Simplicity is not the same as stupidity.