Artificial Intelligence, Art and Controversy

I don’t often talk about computer technology and software here because A) it’s generally pretty boring, and B) there are far better sources for information about this stuff than me. But I want to talk about “artificial intelligence”, or AI as it’s known, because it has some serious implications for all of us as it comes into more widespread use. While I used to be a programmer I’m not so much interested in the technology of AIs as I am in the ethical and social implications of AIs, and that’s what I want to talk about briefly.

Take a look at that painting up there. It isn’t bad, really. Personally I’d like it if it were a bit brighter, but overall it isn’t horrible. It’s sort of a generic winter scene, peaceful, pleasant even.

Or what about this one —

Both of these paintings are originals that I just did in the last few days, but I didn’t make them in the usual way by applying paint to a surface or even a using a stylus on a drawing pad as I usually do. These were done by an app on my cell phone that is available for free on Apple’s app store called Draw Things. And as you can see it is pretty damn good. Well, sometimes. I will admit that about 8 out of 10 of the images it generates are, frankly, a bit, well, surreal. Like this one below.

I found myself wondering what kind of drugs my iPhone was on to make it produce something like this.

But that being said, that it works at all is, I think, a bit amazing. What’s even more amazing is that unlike some of the other art AIs out there which actually run on some massive server somewhere out there on the internet, Draw Things runs entirely on the phone, no external processing power required. You can try it yourself although I’ll warn you that your phone will need a lot of free memory (the libraries the software uses are a gigabyte+ in size and you need at least one for the program to work) and using the program frequently will suck up a hell of a lot of battery as well because it really makes that processor work hard.

When you run the program, what you do is type in words and phrases that verbally describe the scene you want painted. Let’s say you type in something like “A white cat sitting on a table with vases of flowers” as an example. What you get is something like this –

MrsGF thinks that image is just creepy but personally I think it’s kind of charming, but everyone’s tastes are different.

But these art AIs have also generated a hell of a lot of controversy as well, and for good reasons.

Yes, this one was generated by that app running on my cell phone.

First of all, artists, actual real world artists who create real world art, are very nervous about all of this and for very good reasons. There are thousands of artists out there who earn their living as graphic artists, illustrators, etc. for advertising agencies, magazines and the like. Publishers and corporations don’t give a fig about things like ‘artistic integrity’ or keeping illustrators gainfully employed. They only care about money. So if it comes down to paying an illustrator money to create a piece of artwork for them, or generating something essentially for free with an AI, guess which option they’re going to take? They’re going to go with the AI everytime.

Another controversy is how these AIs are trained. Before these things will work properly they have to be trained by feeding them literally millions of illustrations. They do this by scraping the internet for every image they can get their hands on, whether those images are protected by copyright or not. Under a strict interpretation of copyright law some claim that this is an illegal use of those copyrighted images. Others claim that this use qualifies as what is known as “fair use” and is legally and ethically acceptable. I’m not a lawyer and I’m not even going to try to figure out whether how these things are trained is legal or ethical or not.

Then there is the question of who “owns” the artwork generated by an AI. That image over there on the right was generated by Draw Things. So who actually owns the rights to that image? You could argue that the image was generated by my phone, using an application that I own, so therefore the image is mine and I own all rights to it.

But it isn’t as simple as that. These days you don’t actually “own” the software you are using. You’re merely licensing it. Basically you’re renting it. That’s been the case for decades now. Under the licensing agreement you agree to, and which you almost certainly haven’t bothered to read because you’d have to hire an attorney to figure it out for you, the maker of the software can set any conditions they like, and it is claimed that your mere use of that software means that you agree to all of the conditions in the license, whether you read them or not. It would be entirely within the realm of possibility for the maker of the AI you’re using to claim any and all rights to any artwork generated by the program. Unless you carefully read the fine print in the license agreement, you have no idea what you are agreeing to.

Some people have started to claim that the AI that generated the image “owns” it. The people who are making this claim either need to find a new hobby or stop taking whatever drugs they’re on because this is just stupid. An AI isn’t an intelligence, it is a computer program. Period. It is no more ‘alive’ than the old Eliza programs people were playing with back in the early days of computing. They’re little more than a complex series of “IF-THEN-ELSE” choices pre-programmed into a computer. Oh, all right it’s a lot more complex than that, but what it boils down to is that an AI is just a computer program like the one I’m using to write this. It is no more “intelligent” or self aware than the calculator you use to figure out your taxes.

The other thing that makes people very nervous is the fact that these things can be used to generate images that mimic specific artists. Want to have your very own original Van Gogh to hang on the wall? You can. These things can easily mimic the artistic style of most well known artists, living or dead. Living artists claim that this reduces the demand for their original artwork. People who like their work don’t need to buy an original or, more likely, an authorized print of the original work, they can use an AI to generate their own in the style of that artist.

I would imagine that the companies that have become wealthy selling stock images for use in publications, companies like Getty, are terrified by this kind of technology because it would very easily put them out of business. Let’s say you’re writing an article about, oh, shopping malls, and you want to put in a photo of a nice looking mall. Instead of going to one of these stock photo companies and buying one, just make your own. Like the one over there on the left. It took Draw Things a little over a minute to generate that. My cost? Zero. So why would anyone ever need to buy generic photos for illustrating articles any more? So let’s just say that investing your pension fund in companies that sell stock images probably isn’t a good idea.

And these things can be used to produce some not so nice images as well. Pornography, s0-called ‘deep fakes’ that portray celebrities, politicians or other well known persons in, oh, compromising positions, let’s call it, can all be generated with nothing but a program like this and a few written descriptions of what you want to see.

Some of the developers of these programs are starting to put filters into the systems to try to prevent or at least limit their capabilities so they can’t be usfed for illicit purposes, but that is ultimately futile. The technology is now out there. A lot of it is open source, meaning anyone can tinker with the underlying code. And there are versions of these programs already out there in the wild, so to speak, tweaked to specifically crank out these types of illicit images. Let’s face it, my friends, that’s what human beings are like. As soon as human beings developed things like writing, painting and drawing, they started using it to make porn.

There are already people out there demanding that something need to be done. Right now. By someone. Somewhere. Congress needs to act now! Act how, though? Ban the software? Sorry, that horse is already out of the barn. Thousands of people are already using it and hundreds are tinkering with the code to make it work even better.

What it all boils down to is that we have a lot of questions, a lot of ethical concerns, a lot of legal issues, and no real answers.

Please feel free to leave comments about this. I’m curious about what other people think of all of this and if anyone has proposed solutions to the problems.