A.I. and the visual arts – Ignorance goes both ways

The subject of artificial intelligence (A.I) in the service of synthesized artistic output through text-based prompts is a hot button topic right now.

Online A.I. engines are popping up everywhere, and social media is being flooded with visual outputs from machine learning algorithms that process human-made art and aggregate it into something whose artistic origins may be very difficult to trace.

There is no denying that these A.I. engines are very complex and represent significant developments in how imagery is processed and interpreted digitally. A.I. advocates lean heavily on what they claim is a lack of understanding of the technology by its critics – an ignorance that is undoubtedly real to some extent.

The problem is, A.I. advocates are often equally ignorant when it comes to the history, evolution and craftsmanship involved in the visual arts. And they are often wont to flippantly dismiss the notion that this ignorance affects their ability to clearly judge the very obvious problems – legal, financial, cultural, ethical – that arise from the use of artificial intelligence in producing visual outputs

The flippant dismissal of the “technological illiteracy” sometimes exhibited by A.I. critics can just as easily be turned around on the pro-A.I. crowd as evidence of their lack of awareness of artistic endeavors, and the efforts and skills involved.

Glorifying technical advancements to the detriment of human artistic pursuits does not justify this type of programmatic plundering. A.I. advocates argue that A.I.s “learn” and “recognize patterns”. Sure, but they learn from WHOM, and recognize WHOSE patterns exactly…?

What is used to fuel A.I. engines represents advancements in the arts over centuries that are now being commoditized and pilfered, simply to become convenient, synthesized outputs. This is being enabled blindly, seemingly without awareness of the efforts, skills or sensibilities that are prevalent characteristics of the visual arts, completely without recognition of the contributions of all the myriads of artists who labored to achieve these advancements.

Blind belief in technology (however advanced) does not justify glossing over the ethical, legal and cultural issues involved here. The arts are facets of human culture and expression, not merely data in the public domain to be used as fodder for machine learning algorithms. However much time, skill and effort spent on filter programming, iterations of prompts, editing or post-processing, does not invalidate centuries of artistic evolution.

Ignorance goes both ways, and the fact that so many are willing to call others ignorant while covering up their own massive blind spots is really troublesome. If you want to champion one form of development to the detriment of another, then at least make the effort to learn about that which you are dismissing, depleting and cheapening. I see zero signs of an understanding of art and artistic craftsmanship in the pro-A.I. camp – just a cynical eagerness to commoditize it, and treat it as inherently without value. (I also see zero sensitivity among A.I. advocates to the concerns of actual artists, but that lack of recognition of artistic concerns from the technology sector is unfortunately nothing new).

The fundamental truth about machine learning is: garbage in, garbage out. Which means the machine needs to be fed something of value in order to produce something of value. The real question is, just where is the recognition of the value of the raw artistic materials that are being fed to the machine…? I think it is perfectly obvious that this value goes entirely unrecognized, unattributed and uncompensated. Fortunes are being built in the A.I. field without any of it being shared with those who created the original “raw materials”.

This is what is commonly referred to as piracy.

If you’re going to dismiss this, you need to come prepared with a better understanding of intellectual property law, and not just engage in mudslinging and namecalling – something that cheapens both the fields of A.I. and the arts.

Even if artists are indeed ignorant of the technological complexities involved in the creation and use of artifical intelligence, it still does not invalidate their rights to be recognized as the original creators of the art that is being processed and synthesized. But, on the other hand, ignorance on the part of A.I. advocates of the artistic traditions and efforts involved in producing the raw materials used by the A.I. engines does not excuse outright piracy.

One form of ignorance is not the same as, and does not justify the other.

The relationship is asymmetrical. You don’t need to fully understand the ins and outs of A.I. technology to recognize the risks and challenges. Knowing how machine learning works is not essential to recognizing its impact on society, just like you don’t need to understand the biochemistry of DNA to realize that patenting DNA sequences is highly problematic.

However, the reverse is not equally true; you DO need to understand art, art history and artistic craftsmanship to recognize just what is being eroded.

Technology is the aggressor here; the force that is appropriating and monetizing gains made in another field, without proper attribution or compensation. Its advocates are the ones who need to proceed with caution, and recognize their own ignorance, specifically because of the potential damage caused by that for which they are advocating.

By comparison, artists are really not in a position to challenge or compromise Big Tech – the mere suggestion is frankly a bit ludicrous.

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