We are the artist: Generative AI and the future of art

We are the artist: Generative AI and the future of art

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Before writing a single word of this article, I created the image above using a new type of AI software that produces “generative artwork.”  The process took about 15 minutes and did not involve paints or canvases.  I simply entered a few lines of text to describe the image that I wanted – a robot holding a paintbrush and standing at an easel.  

After a few iterations, making adjustments and revisions, I achieved a result I was happy with. To me, the image above is an impressive piece of original artwork.  After all, it captures the imagination and evokes an emotional response that seems no less authentic than human art. 

Does this mean that AI is now as creative and evocative as human artists? 

No.

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Generative AI systems are not creative at all.  In fact, they lack any real intelligence. Sure, I typed in a request for an image of a robot holding a paintbrush, but the AI system had no actual understanding of what a “robot” or a “paintbrush” actually is.  It created the artwork using a complex statistical process that correlates imagery with the words and phrases in the prompt. 

The results look like human artwork because the system was trained on millions of human artifacts – drawings, paintings, prints, photos – most of it likely captured off the internet. I don’t mean to imply these systems are unimpressive. The technology is truly amazing and profoundly useful. It’s just not “creative” in the same way humans think of creativity.  

After all, the AI system did not feel anything while creating the work. It also didn’t consider the emotional response it was hoping to evoke from the viewer.  It didn’t draw upon any inherent artistic sensibilities. In essence, it did nothing that a human artist would do.  Yet, it created remarkable work.  

The image below is another example of a robot holding a paintbrush that was generated during my 15-minute session.  Although it wasn’t chosen to be used at the top of this article, I find it deeply compelling work, instilled with undeniable feeling:  

We are the artist: Generative AI and the future of art
Generative Robot (Image created by author using Midjourney)

If the AI is not the artist, then who is?  

If we consider the pieces above to be original artwork, who was the artist?  It certainly wasn’t me. All I did was enter a text prompt and make a variety of choices and revisions.  At best, I was a collaborator. The artist also wasn’t the software, which has no understanding of what it created and possesses no ability to think or feel.  So, who was the artist? 

My view is that we all created the artwork – humanity itself.  

I believe we should consider humanity to be the artist of record. I don’t just mean people who are alive today, but every person who contributed to the millions of creative artifacts that generative AI systems are trained upon. 

It is not just the countless human artists who had their original works vacuumed up and digested by these AI systems, but also members of the public who shared the artwork, described it via social media posts or simply upvoted it so it became more prominent in the massive database we call the internet. 

To support this notion, I ask that you imagine an identical AI technology on some distant planet, developed by some other intelligent species and trained on millions of their creative artifacts. The output of that system might be artistic to them – evocative and impactful.  To us, it would probably be incomprehensible. I doubt we would recognize it as art.  

In other words, without being trained on a database of humanity’s creative artifacts, today’s AI systems would not generate anything that we would recognize as emotional artwork. Hence, my assertion that humanity should be the artist of record for large-scale generative art.

A picture containing text, colorful, automaton

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Generative Robot Artist (Image created by author using Midjourney)

Compensation 

If an individual artist created the robot pictures above, they would be compensated.  Similarly, if a team of artists had created the work, they too would be compensated. Big-budget movies are often staffed with hundreds of artists across many disciplines, all contributing to a single piece of artwork, all of them compensated. But what about generative artwork created by AI systems trained on millions upon millions of creative human artifacts? 

If we accept that humanity is the artist – who should be compensated? Clearly, the companies that provide generative AI software and computing power deserve substantial compensation. I have no regrets about paying the subscription fee that was required to generate the artwork above.  But there were also vast numbers of humans who participated in the creation of that artwork, their contributions inherent in the massive set of original content that the AI system was trained on.  

Should humanity be compensated?  

I believe it’s reasonable to consider a “humanity tax” on generative systems that are trained on massive datasets of human artifacts. It could be a modest fee on transactions, maybe paid into a central “humanity fund” or distributed to decentralized accounts using blockchain.

I know this may be a strange idea, but think of it this way: If a spaceship full of entrepreneurial aliens showed up and asked humanity to contribute our collective works to a massive database so they could generate derivative human artifacts for profit, we’d likely ask for compensation. 

Well, this is already happening here on earth. Without being asked for consent, we humans have contributed a vast collection of creative artifacts to some of the largest corporations this planet has ever seen — corporations that can now build generative AI systems and use them to sell derivative content for a profit. 

This suggests that a “humanity tax” is not a crazy idea, rather a reasonable first step in a world that is likely to use more and more generative AI tools in the coming years. Our contributions won’t just be used for making quick images at the top of articles like this one. Generative methods will be used for everything from crafting written essays and blog posts to generating custom videos, music, fashion and furniture, even fine artwork you hang on your walls.  All of it will draw upon large swaths of the collective works from humanity – the artist of record.

Louis Rosenberg, Ph.D. is a pioneer in the fields of VR, AR, and AI. His work began over thirty years ago in labs at Stanford and NASA.

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