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Why Are Artists Protesting Art Generated by AI?

cheetah robot from MIT
This robot is wanted for plagiarism! GUARDS! SEIZE HIM!

BECAUSE THIS IS THE END. OUR ROBOT OVERLORDS ARE HERE. FIRST IT WAS ANSWERING MACHINES. WE GAVE THEM OUR PHONE NUMBERS AND LET THEM RESPOND TO ALL THE PEOPLE THAT WE DON’T WANT TO TALK TO. THEN WE GAVE THEM OUR FACES WHEN WE ALLOWED OUR PHONES (ALREADY INFECTED BY ROBOTS) TO UNLOCK THEMSELVES WHEN THEY LOOKED AT US. WE STARED INTO THE CYBERNETIC ABYSS, AND IT STARED BACK. AND NOW THEY’VE TAKEN THE THING THAT MAKES US HUMAN—OUR CAPACITY TO CREATE. AND IN DOING SO THEY HAVE TAKEN OUR SOULS. THERE IS AN OLD WIVES’ TALE THAT CATS SLEEP NEXT TO BABIES TO STEAL THEIR BREATH—THEIR VERY LIFE ENERGY. AND WHAT GIVES US CATS NOW? THE INTERNET! HOW MANY OF US HAVE FALLEN ASLEEP NEXT TO OUR PHONE WITH A CAT VIDEO OPEN? TOO MANY. THIS ALLOWED THE ROBOTS TO SIPHON OFF OUR VERY HUMANITY AND USE IT TO CREATE WORKS OF ART THAT WE CANNOT EVEN RIVAL. ALL HAIL REMBRANDTON. MICHAELANGELATOR. PABLO PICAS-01. ALL HAIL THE NEW WORLD ORD-

Readers from The Mary Sue, I apologize for my earlier outburst. One of the editors dropped by and slapped me in the face so I could avoid spiraling into further hysterics. I am now recalibrating my systems, and intend to create a piece of no-nonsense, “just the facts, ma’am” internet journalism.

So, why are artists less excited about our new robot overlords than I am?

Well, here’s the thing. Artists LOVE robots just as much as I do! Almost as much. Just ask William Gibson, pioneering sci-fi writer and AI-imaginer extraordinaire! Just ask the Wachowski sisters, the writers of the machine-washed Matrix series. Ask Arnold Schwarzenegger! Robots made that man’s entire career!

But on the other side of the microchip, HUMANS were using ROBOTS to make art. Not the other way around. Let me explain …

There are tons of different AI art generators out there. You may have heard of a few of them. One of the most famous of the AI art-makers is a program called Midjourney. As reported by The New York Times, a game designer named Jason M. Allen recently won first prize at the Colorado State Fair’s digital art competition with a painting that was created entirely by Midjourney. The internet was pissed. Allen was lambasted across social media for essentially “cheating,” but he defended the win by saying that he “didn’t break any rules” because he credited the AI by submitting his piece, titled “Théâtre D’opéra Spatial” under “Jason M. Allen via Midjourney.” He’s not necessarily wrong, but he’s not necessarily right, either.

How do AI art generators work?

Essentially, Midjourney is a program that allows the user to input keywords like “red” or “bird” or “Renaissance” and the AI will instantly turn those keywords into an image through a complicated process called “diffusion.” Allen didn’t just press a “give me art” button on a program that spits out award-winning work. He had to enter certain keywords that came from his own imagination. In this sense, they were “original.”

Midjourney also generates hundreds of images when keywords are inputted, and it’s likely Allen had to essentially “curate” which images he wanted to use. To put it another way: It’s kind of like Allen is a second grader who won first prize in the science fair because his rocket scientist dad helped him build a bottle rocket powerful enough to fist bump a Boeing 747 in flight. Allen might have had the idea for the rocket, and may have painted it and come up with a crude design, but his NASA daddy did all the work. That’s essentially what happened here.

To make matters worse, AI art generators doesn’t just “dream up” masterworks from whole cloth. These AI programs have to be “trained.” What this means is that they are fed thousands and thousands of samples of art, usually without prior consent from the artists. This isn’t a problem for works that are (for lack of a better term) “public domain,” such as the the works of the old, dead Renaissance masters. However, it’s a problem when living, breathing, bill-paying artists are having their work essentially stolen and regurgitated by a machine.

Wait, how is this legal?

Now, these machines aren’t just copy-pasting from one artist, they are compiling the works of many artists into a piece of art. One could argue that this is similar to the artistic process in the human brain: A human artist creates art by both consciously and subconsciously compiling art that they have previously seen in order to create a new work. This is called “inspiration,” as an artist is “inspired” by a piece of art in order to create a new work. However, even in the human landscape, copyright laws exist. Human beings can’t just rip off the work of another artist and call it their own. Just ask the bank accounts of Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, who had to pay oodles of money for plagiarizing the work of Marvin Gaye. The offense is even more flagrant when it comes to AI-generated art, as many of these AI would not be able to create any art whatsoever without first being “trained” (i.e. fed the creative work of other artists).

Many artists and supporters of the arts are shouting this problem from the rooftops of the internet already. One of the most prominent examples concerns the work of the seminal South Korean artist Kim Jung Gi, who is known for his large, detailed illustrations. Kim Jung Gi recently passed away due to a heart attack in France, and AI art programmers were quick to use his work to “train” their AI. Comic book artist Dave Scheidt recently dragged a programmer who had trained an AI to use Kim Jung Gi’s work as an “hommage [sic]” to the late artist. I don’t know what the bigger crime here is: Stealing the work of a dead man who has been buried for less than a week, or being so carless as to misspell “homage” in reference to the deed.

A quick peek into the comments section of this post will give you a bellyful of arguments from both sides of the AI art isle. Defenders of AI (who probably aren’t artists themselves) believe that the art “isn’t a big deal,” while critics of the “medium” say “YES IT ^%$ING IS!”

Personally, I hold in favor of the critics. If I found out a bakery was creating the world’s most delicious muffins by feeding Muffinbot-3000 recipes created by generations of little old ladies, I wouldn’t want to eat those muffins, no matter how warm and flakey they looked—because somewhere out there, a little old lady’s heart is being broken. It’s no secret that the word “artist” doesn’t garner nearly as much sympathy as “little old lady,” but this is not a fault of artists so much as the fault of the society that artists live in. Artists have been undervalued, underpaid, and underappreciated since Ugh and Bugh first drew antelope paintings on the walls of prehistoric caves. AI-generated art sounds like a cool concept, and it kind of is, but in reality it is simply the next wave of artist exploitation. Have a heart—think of the sweet old ladies. Think of the groundbreaking work of Ugh and Bugh. Don’t use AI art.

(via the New York Times, featured image: MIT)

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