Should We Be Concerned About AI Erasing Beautiful Art Made By Humans?

By Andrea Mew
·  9 min read
shutterstock 2089484851 (1)

Not too long ago, my husband asked me to come up with a picture in my mind. He wanted me to think outside the box and combine extremely dissimilar concepts together to create a really abstract scenario.

Turns out, he had been accepted into the beta for Midjourney, a software that makes AI-generated digital art. I had no idea what we were getting into, but once we started dreaming big and pairing together bizarre concepts or typing in inside jokes, we were completely amused.

The software we were playing around with is similar to DALL•E, a program that is being perfected to make artificial intelligence more accessible for the average American. Any prompt you give it, DALL•E or Midjourney will generate mostly realistic images or art. DALL•E, led by the research and development company OpenAI, has purported that artists can actually incorporate artificial intelligence software into their creative processes rather than letting it overtake the project entirely. 

When you peruse some of the greatest hits of AI-generated art on the internet, you’re left amused, concerned, and even impressed. The capability of computers to create decent art through algorithms is improving, but that doesn’t leave a good taste in everyone’s mouths. 

AI-generated art is “an ethical and copyright nightmare,” says one Kotaku reporter. WIRED notes that “some creatives fear for their livelihoods.” But is it as dystopian as it all sounds?

We Can’t Outright Dismiss the Positive Benefits of AI

Artists have actually been using AI technologies to supplement their existing equipment for quite some time now. Certain programs make it easier to automate repetitive activities. As one digital artist on Reddit noted, most AI-generated art requires the artist to touch up details in programs like Photoshop. They can generate 3D models by inputting prompts into an AI generator, the 2020s equivalent of the wooden, articulated models. “If anything, artists are empowered to create more art,” they said.

So, some artists who use them see AI as a tool rather than a new entity replacing them. AI has also been used to assist artists who are looking to envision new art in the style of famous artists of yesteryear. The use of AI could even protect the integrity of existing masterpieces that need careful restoration by generating missing pieces lost to time.

Artists aside, artificial intelligence undoubtedly is shaking up how companies improve their operations. Power grids, which are already being revolutionized with “smart” technology, are predicted to become smarter and more automatized. The healthcare industry will also benefit from quicker diagnoses, faster access to medical data, better organized hospital schedules, and personalized treatment plans.

For tech optimists, AI’s progression means new tools to cure diseases, colonize space, write code, generate marketing emails, write entire screenplays, and perhaps even avert ecological disasters. There are so many identifiable positives, why not accelerate its progression? Well, just as AI has many benefits, it’s pretty easy to conjure up a few concerns.

Tech Automation Might Kill Off Commercial Jobs

20% of the world’s workforce may lose their jobs because of tech automation, according to researchers McKinsey, but the data shows that those careers are mostly in “predictable environments” like manual labor, fast food, paralegal work, accounting, and transaction processing. McKinsey also predicts that AI will actually increase the need for certain jobs.

The first category is called “creatives” by McKinsey, which include a “growing category of artists, performers, and entertainers.” The researchers believe these workers will still be in high demand because of rising incomes creating more of a demand for recreation and leisure. In addition, McKinsey predicts that domestic work, education, and gardening won’t fall to the wayside with the rise of AI. 

20% of the world’s workforce may lose their jobs because of tech automation.

Another major concern that is often brought up in the discussion of AI is that is doesn’t have the same ability as humans to make ethical decisions. One of my immediate recollections when the AI conversation ramped back up was the hypothetical trolley problem. This philosophical thought experiment digs at the human psyche in an effort to uncover any given person’s moral compass. They’re prompted with a scenario where a runaway trolley is about to hit five people tied to the tracks, or, if the trolley is diverted, it will hit one innocent bystander. What does human intuition lead you to do? Intentionally kill one to save five, certain casualties?

These thought experiments are often used to question the rise of autonomous vehicles because a self-driving car’s software doesn’t have the same ethical reasoning ability as a human. In response, some experts have done massive quantities of research to create a more ethically-programmed AI system. 

For what it’s worth, the World Economic Forum themselves have admitted how fatal disasters due to advancements in robotics could increase, but their solution is for society to let machines learn through years of training in controlled environments to responsibly roll out new AI and robotics technology. Known for their big-picture optimism on the ever-blurring lines between technology and reality, the WEF actually believes AI should be banned for certain uses that could worsen inequities, such as the criminal justice system. So just like how AI probably shouldn’t be used to determine a person’s criminal sentencing, should there be new lines drawn in the sand to protect artists from feeling obsolete at the hands of DALL•E-like programs?

Look no further than a recent scandal in the art world where the Colorado State Fair gave a first-place award in their fine art competition to an AI-generated piece of art. “Théâtre D'opéra Spatial” by Incarnate Games President Jason Alley was generated using Midjourney, and following its win, artists online were infuriated with “the death of artistry” and the “danger of becoming obsolete.”

Art Created with the Human Touch Might Increase in Value

Think about the beautiful prints of masterpieces you too can own for a fraction of the cost. Though prints can be framed and placed on your wall to admire and give the appearance of art ownership, you’re really only owning a recreation of the original thing. Prints of artistic masterpieces can even look visually better than the original since they might blur out human-made imperfections, but aren’t those imperfections and reminders of humanity exactly what gives art its personality, and therefore, its inherent value?

Panic over AI overtaking human art brings me back to studying sociology in university in its relation to media and contemporary culture. French sociologist Jean Baudrillard poured his life’s work into studying the concepts of consumerism. He broke down the value of objects into four parts – functional, exchange, symbolic, and sign – which I’ll explain using lip products.

The functional value of a lip product is based on how it’s used in practical operation: Burt’s Bees chapstick goes on your lips. The exchange value of a lip product is based on its worth in market value: a Kylie Jenner liquid lipstick is worth about three inexpensive Burt’s Bees chapsticks. The symbolic value of a lip product is based on how it’s subjectively viewed: a kiss-proof Charlotte Tilbury lipstick may symbolize a wedding day. The sign value of a lip product is based on its status or prestige: an Hermes matte lipstick might function just as well as a MAC matte lipstick, but one is haute and the other is a great dupe.

Baudrillard would argue that the symbolic value and sign value disrupt the functional and exchange value, and therefore are more valuable to consumers. I bring this up not to send you down a “save vs splurge” rabbit hole, but to instead get you thinking about how brand status and exclusivity are worth their weight in gold. So let’s apply this to the hypothetical Etsy print of a painting you have. It’s still beautiful to you. It still adorns your wall. But if you had it appraised, you’d be met with scoffs and won’t make bank on it.

Beautiful art made by human hands touches our soul in a way that modern or homogenous art simply can’t.

There will always be art appraisers and everyday consumers who value the human element and the emotion that goes into manmade art. High-level artistic creativity will become more accessible to the masses, but even digital artists who use AI think there’s too much “doom and gloom” surrounding machines replacing humans. 

They instead liken DALL•E software to how we’re all “photographers” now in the sense that we have high-level cameras in our smartphones. But what can we really accomplish with them if there are many more complexities to taking a great picture that a human brain needs to think out rather than a machine? Taking a photo on “auto” settings using a DSLR camera can produce an adequate, clear shot – like how iPhone portrait mode looks pretty nice – but nothing compares to photography done by someone who understands how to manipulate shutter speed, aperture, ISO, exposure, and so on in real-time.

Closing Thoughts

There will always be a place in our society for true, artistic beauty. Art made by human hands to craft beautiful aesthetics touches our souls in a way that modern art and dull, homogenous art simply can’t. Though AI will increasingly provide artists with new tools to speed up certain creative processes or give them inspiration that they couldn’t quite create a mental image for, it’s safe to say that AI won’t outright make the human artist obsolete. 

Art is subjective and the art world places high value on the status or prestige of an artist. While we might not agree with all aspects of AI integrating into our daily lives – and we’re well within our rights to speak out about the potential negative impacts – the humanity of art is what makes it beautiful, and increased access to new technologies doesn’t necessarily mean outright obsolescence.

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