The Robot’s Canvas
Will human creativity survive the 21st century?
The Chef, the Runner, and the Chessmaster
“Technopoly is a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology. This requires the development of a new kind of social order, and of necessity leads to the rapid dissolution of much that is associated with traditional beliefs.”
- Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (77)
I want you to indulge me in three thought experiments.
Imagine first that there’s a chef named Gordon Bourdain. Gordon is a five-star chef who writes recipes for delicious dishes, but his robots do all the cooking. If Gordon tried to enter culinary school and cook on his own, he would almost certainly fail, but because he has robots to help him, he gets to be a five-star chef and enjoy all the acclaim that comes with it.
Imagine secondly that there’s a runner named Sonic Bolt. Sonic’s legs are purely mechanical. These, however, are not ordinary prosthetics, but “super legs” which allow him to run ten times faster than the average human. Thanks to his super legs, Sonic wins every race and is now an Olympic gold medalist.
Imagine thirdly that there’s a champion chess player named Magnus Harmon. Whenever Magnus plays chess, he consults a computer named DeepBlue 9000. Each turn, DeepBlue 9000 studies the board and gives Magnus his best suggestion. Magnus follows these suggestions and always beats his opponents without fail. His opponents, it should be noted, have no computers to help them. Thanks to DeepBlue 9000, Magnus has never lost a chess game and gets to call himself a chess champion.
How do you think the chef, who spent years of his life studying in culinary school, feels about Gordon calling himself a “chef”? How do you think the runners who race against Sonic feel, knowing that no matter how fast they run, they can never outrun him? How do you think Magnus’ opponents feel about having to compete with a computer that can always outsmart them?
Perhaps now you can understand the anxieties many writers and artists have about AI products like Stable Diffusion (which produces art) and ChatGPT (which produces writing). AI art generators, like DALL-E, Midjourney, and Stable Diffusion, are text-to-image generators, which operate by creating images based on prompts that the user types in. This software is often trained on huge pools of imagery and text to draw on. AI chatbots like ChatGPT reply to prompts, like other chatbots, but unlike other chatbots, it can also write plots, screenplays, songs, poetry, and dialogues.
This technology is advancing to the point where, absent any regulation, human writers and artists could easily see themselves replaced. If AI, when given the right prompts, can create a novel as compelling as Hemingway’s or a painting as beautiful as Da Vinci’s, then why go through the trouble of hiring a trained professional? Why risk investment on an unknown talent? In fact, the AI art doesn’t even need to be that good. It only needs to be good enough to fool the average consumer, which won’t be too high a bar to reach.
It’s something which is already happening before our eyes. A work of AI art won a digital arts competition against humans who had no such advantages. Tor Books, a major publisher for science-fiction and fantasy, used AI art for an upcoming book cover, instead of hiring an illustrator. Over the course of 72 hours, one man published a children’s book using only AI tools. Only days after the death of illustrator Kim Jung Gi, one man used AI to generate images very similar to Gi’s artwork. “Authors” (so-called) are already releasing AI novels by the dozen on Kindle. The Harvard Crimson and The Guardian have published opinion pieces by AI. The San Francisco Ballet used AI art, instead of a photographer or illustrator, to promote its Nutcracker performance. And this is only the beginning. What will the creative landscape look like 10 or 20 years from now?
The Strange Death of Human Creativity
“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
- Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (285)
“Thou shalt not make a machine to counterfeit a human mind.”
- Frank Herbert, Dune (17)
Should AI artists be respected as “artists” and should their work be seen as “art?” The short answer is “yes,” but only in the most technical sense. Keep in mind that the definition of “art” has been expanded to include whatever people want it to include. Many mediums once derided as vulgar are now considered, by some people, to be “art.” Jazz, comics, movies, cartoons, rock n’roll, TV shows, video games, rap, and even pornography, have at least a few people who will argue for their artistic merits. Marcel Duchamp’s urinal is “art.” John Cage sitting in front of his piano for four minutes is “art.” Andy Warhol’s eight hour footage of the Empire State Building is “art.” Even that grotesque MLK statue in Boston is “art.” In a world where anything is “art,” anyone can call themselves an “artist.”
The technophiles may claim that generative AI is simply an artistic tool, like the typewriter or the paintbrush in years past. They may say that AI generated art is no different from other forms of digital art, such as computer art, computer animation, and digital paintings. They may say that chatbot literature is no different from using Microsoft Word to revise drafts. They may even say that we only object to this technology because it is new.
I reply that the distinction between “AI-based art” and “human made art” is not a trivial one. In the former, most of the work is done by the artificial intelligence. In the latter, most of the work is done by the human mind. Typing up the right prompts for Midjourney and asking the right questions to ChatGPT is a skill, yes, but it is not a labor. Human creatives spend years of their lives learning, practicing, and improving for the sake of their craft. It is a process where they pour in all their intellect, emotions, and memories. It is an enriching and cathartic process whereby humans not only prove themselves, but also come to understand themselves. No such process occurs in the creation of AI-based art, or if it does, the human element is so small as to be a minor factor in the creation, and not the driving force.
There’s a difference between a bodybuilder who uses weight machines at the gym to gain muscle and another who uses steroids to the same end. The former involved discipline. The latter involved a needle. When a playwright writes a play on a typewriter, they type out the whole play themselves, often going through multiple drafts. The typewriter, if given a prompt, does not type the whole play out for them.
In human-based art, the quality of the work is dependent more so on the human than on the tools they use. In AI-based art, the quality of the work is more dependent on the tools than it is on the human. The average person cannot simply pick up a typewriter, paintbrush, or graphics tablet and create a new work of art. To do so requires years of hard work. The average person could create a decent work of AI art within minutes, if that.
A poet who lacks a computer can still find ways to write poetry. A painter who lacks a paintbrush can still find ways to paint. A filmmaker who can’t use a digital camera can still use a super 8. While the quality of these works may be affected from their usual standard, the artist’s creative vision will probably remain consistent throughout. Can the same be said of an AI-artist who lacks their AI? Do they have a creative vision of their own making, or are they selecting one provided by a machine?
AI artists are only “artists” in the sense that Gordon Bourdain is a “five-star chef,” in the sense that Sonic Bolt is an “Olympic gold medalist,” and in the sense that Magnus Harmon is a “champion chess player.” They are “artists,” no doubt, but “artists” of a different sort, if you catch my meaning. I will cede to them the word “artist,” but I will not cede to them the word “creative.”
Our creativity is what makes us human. It is what sets us apart from every other living thing on Earth. From our earliest years on this planet, humans have told stories, drawn pictures, and made music. Our myths and religions were our earliest explanations for how the world worked. Our earliest moral teachers, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Confucius, and Aesop, all told stories to communicate their teachings. The whole corpus of human creation is a great conversation between the past and the present. It is an eternal dialogue which anyone can listen to or participate in. Through engaging with our creations, we not only understand the varieties of the human experience, but also the common threads which bind us together. Human creativity is our most precious cultural heritage. Will we really cede all of this to AI?
In his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman warned that American society had become a “technopoly,” where technological “progress” is no longer a means to an end, but the end itself. Where technology itself has become a god whose expansion is inevitable, irreversible, and always acceptable. Its ideology is that of “progress without limits, rights without responsibilities, and technology without cost” (184). I can think of no better word than “technopoly” to describe the current era.
We are approaching a future where it will be impossible to tell the difference between which creations were AI and which were human. A future where children are raised on books, films, music, and art made, at least in part, by AI. It is a future where the mental work and frustrations that come with creativity are seen, not as pivotal to human growth, but as minor inconveniences to be automated away in order to create “content” as efficiently as possible. It is a future where people will no longer think or create for themselves, but have their AI do such things for them. There will be no thought expressed that hasn’t already been checked by approval by an AI. In this future, creating with your own mind will be seen as a strange novelty, a relic of an older age.
Is this a future you want to live in?
If we allow AI to take over the realm of creativity, then humanity will suffer a great depression the likes of which it has never before seen. I speak not of an economic depression, but a depression of the soul. Most creatives aren’t in it for the money (though money helps). They’re in it because they’ve found a way to express themselves. They’ve found something which gives their lives meaning. What happens when you take that away? What happens when the integrity of human creativity is permanently compromised by the proliferation of AI? What happens when generations of human creatives are made irrelevant by an AI which can do their jobs faster than they? What happens when most people are more interested in how an AI sees the world and not in how a human sees it? What happens to the great conversation which has been the backbone of our culture since the Stone Age?
The technophiles believe that automation of jobs is a good thing, even if many humans are replaced with machines as a result. The question we must confront is this: “Are all jobs worth replacing?” There are some things in life which we should not surrender to AI, which should remain within the exclusive realm of humankind. Creativity is chief among them. The moment we replace human creatives with machines is the moment that we, as a civilization, reach spiritual death.
Technopoly or Survival
“I feel like we are nearing the end times. We humans are losing faith in ourselves.”
- Hayao Miyazaki, animator and manga artist, reacting to AI art
“I understand that ChatGPT is in its infancy but perhaps that is the emerging horror of AI — that it will forever be in its infancy, as it will always have further to go, and the direction is always forward, always faster. It can never be rolled back, or slowed down, as it moves us toward a utopian future, maybe, or our total destruction. Who can possibly say which?”
There is a tendency by some in our culture to dismiss anyone concerned about new technology as a “Luddite.” The term comes from the British textile worker uprisings from 1811 to 1813 that challenged the introduction of machines which could threaten their livelihoods. “Luddite” is now used a derogatory term which refers to someone who foolishly fears new technology, but as Postman wrote in Technopoly, the real Luddites were motivated less by a hatred of technology, and more by saving their precious line of work:
“ “Luddite” has come to mean an almost childish and certainly naive opposition to technology. But the historical Luddites were neither childish nor naive. They were desperately trying to preserve whatever rights, privileges, laws, and customs had given them justice in the older world-view.” (49)
New technology is not always bad, but it is not always good, either. Were those opposed to mustard gas “Luddites”? Where those opposed to nuclear weapons “Luddites”? Were those opposed to Agent Orange “Luddites”? Many of us whom you call “Luddites” are simply concerned about the effects that new technologies could have on our lives. Not all of which are positive.
No such debates were held in the public sphere before these AI programs were set loose. Artists were not consulted when Midjourney was released. Writers were ignored when ChatGPT spread through our schools. The technophiles tell us that we must learn to work with AI. I say to hell with that. AI needs to work with us.
If human creativity is to survive the 21st century, then it seems obvious that AI must be regulated. The purpose of this regulation should be to prevent AI from overtaking and irreversibly compromising human creativity. This beast can still be tamed, but only if we act quickly. I have provided below a list of suggestions to reign in AI. I do not expect all or even most of these suggestions to be enacted, but getting even two or three of them passed would be a palpable victory. I am also open to changing my mind on these suggestions.
I. All generative AI art programs should be banned until there can be a foolproof way of determining which art is human and which is machine.
II. All generative AI chatbots should be banned until they are reformed so as to not be feasibly used in the creation of poetry, songs, short stories, essays, plots, screenplays, or novels.
III. Any AI-based work should not be entitled to any copyright or fair use protections.
IV. Generative AI programs which want to train on copyrighted images or texts can only do so with the express permission of the copyright owners.
V. All AI-based works should be strictly independent. Any company which hires human creatives should be forbidden from using AI-produced art or writing.
VI. Provided that Point V is not enacted, any company which uses AI-generated work will be subject to a tax for each work used. A portion of this tax will be used as a dividend to pay human creatives.
VII. Provided that Point V is not enacted, any human creative working for a company has the right to conscientiously object to generative AI playing any role in the creation or publication of their work.
VIII. All new AI technology must be approved by a panel of ethicists and scientists before release. The panel should also include creatives when involving AI products which could existentially threaten or substantially disrupt creative pursuits.
IX. UNESCO should declare “human creativity” itself to be an intangible cultural heritage whose integrity and survival should be defended from AI.
In Frank Herbert’s science-fiction novel, Dune, there is an event in its fictional history known as the “Butlerian Jihad” where humans rose up against the machines. The term is named for Samuel Butler, who wrote the essay “Darwin Among The Machines” in 1863, in which he warned that if humans ever became the slaves of machines, that we should fight “a war to the death.” I do not believe that such wanton violence is helpful or necessary, but we should be Butlerian in spirit. That Butlerian love of humanity should animate us, but we should also adopt Neil Postman’s term, the “Loving Resistance Fighter.” For even those who disagree with us are still humans deserving of love and respect.
We are, all of us, engaged in a spiritual battle to determine the nature of human creativity. There are those, like me, who believe that the traditions which have guided the creative spirit should survive into the 21st century, and that we should be in control of the machines, and not relinquish our imagination to them. There are others who have no issue with letting machines have our creativity, and that distinctions between artificial intelligence and human intelligence should be erased.
When the dust clears, one side will win and the other shall lose. It is still too early in the day to tell who. All I can say is that in spite of our love for the newest machines, I believe that there are many Americans who still care for tradition and want human creativity to endure. The question is if there are enough of us to win the day. I want to end with the inspiring words of illustrator Molly Crabapple, who is not only a great artist in her own right, but also a Butlerian champion of the human spirit:
“AI pushers have told me that AI is a tool which artists can use to automate their work. This just shows how little they understand us. Art is not scrubbing toilets. It’s not an unpleasant task most people would rather have the robots do. It is our heart. We want to do art’s work. We make art because it is who we are, and through immense effort, some of us have managed to earn a living by it. It’s precarious, sure. Our wages have not risen for decades. But we love this work too much to palm it off to some robot, and it is this love that AI pushers will never get.”
Herbert, Frank. Dune. ACE: New York, 1965. 17.
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. Chatto & Windus: London, 1932. 285
Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Vintage Books: New York, 1992. 49, 77, 184.