4 November 2022
Machining the Dream
As a sci-fi novelist and data analyst, Yudhanjaya Wijeratne is a keen user of the tools technology keeps making available to us. He charts the rise of art made by AIs and seeks to demystify the hype surrounding the headlines.
I am 14 years old.
I have broken my hand.
As it turns out, motorbikes and concrete walls make a near-lethal combination. My wrist has shattered. Several things that were inside are on the outside, and whatever is left of my palm is somewhere in the middle.
I am told that with years of physiotherapy I might recover the use of my hand, but it would never operate the same way again.
So I turn to the machine. Microsoft Word and Paint become my friends. I learn how to chicken-peck my thoughts onto virtual paper. I learn how to draw again, pixel-by-pixel, click-by-click. This infuriates my school teachers no end; they insist that real writing be on paper, and that real art is done with brush, oil and canvas.
Psychedelic Thor on a winged vespa scooter over a hellscape in the style of Picasso by DALLE-2
I am 27 years old.
I have come to an understanding of myself as a sort of cyborg; a tool-user in a long line of tool-users. I speak in English to people, in Python, R, Perl and clicks and clacks to the machine.
I publish a short story. In a dystopian future, there are no human writers anymore - instead, ShakespeareBot 2.0 dominates every bestseller chart, as does HemminwayAi.
But in 2019, I am contemplating a novel involving a machine poet and obsessing over translations of Tang Dynasty poetry. I know that this poet has to sound like a machine. In a fit of casual experimentation, I retrain OpenAI’s GPT2 to write poetry.
The idea is not unique. The concept of text generation has been around on the machine-learning side of computer science as far back as Goldman’s PhD thesis at Stanford from 2000. The idea of using machine-like processes is even older, stretching back to the 13th century’s Ars Magna and 1920s Dadaism to David Bowie himself. Every data scientist worth their salt can string together a Markov Chain - a technique that uses mathematics pioneered in the early 19th century - to generate any amount of nonsense words that feel like infinite monkeys making a go at producing some Shakespeare. The 1964 ELIZA chatbot made humans believe that they were talking to a human therapist, and Dwarf Fortress can generate tens of thousands of years of history for its fictional worlds.
What has changed is that the technology is sophisticated enough to be almost as competent as human beings. When asked to write the (now-famous) report about scientists finding unicorns, it produces a story that could feasibly be BBC reporting. When shown poetry and asked to make more, it does so.
As with the procedural generation of video games as with layers, and alpha channels, and all these helpful tools that exist in virtual space, it turns out that AI can be used to make art: its label at that point ceases to matter.
Recent advances have led to an explosion in AI-generated art. Key among the gene pools are DALLE-2, Midjourney and Stable Diffusion. Think of them as brains frozen at a particular stage of development. The idea is, again, not unique. The popular genesis of this type of work can be traced back to Google’s nightmare-inducing DeepDream. Like a human being, it can mimic style and even the rough form.
Batman as Monalisa in pop art roy Lichtenstein painting at the Louvre by DALLE-2
The technology moves fast. Most models can take images as input; this means they can iterate on an image, using Ao to generate anything from Disney-esque images of Nintendo’s Princess Peach to surreal fairytale videos where images bleed into one another.
As far as applications go, Midjourney comes first, promising high-quality art for a meagre subscription fee. Then comes Stable Diffusion, for free.
These AI models casually appear in Canva ー a widely-used graphic design platform for drawing and presentations. Someone builds a plugin for Photoshop; and so on. It seems that overnight, everyone has a master artist on demand.
Some artists accuse AI of copying work, assuming that it works as a mosaic-maker. Some accuse the AI of theft of style; the idea that, in observing millions of artworks, it is intentionally designed to replace human artists who work in said fashion. Others accuse it of being illegal on the grounds that the AI was made using data obtained without the consent of many of the subjects or artists involved in the original work.
A rusting mechbot cyborg with exposed flesh and skeletal sections and wires holding a flower by DALLE-2
These artificial minds have their own strange grammar, but they operate by creating noise ー a sort of primordial soup of the data ー and extracting features from it that match the concepts we ask for. However, there’s no denying that it feels bad. Much of the art used to train such AI models come from websites designed long before it became feasible to bulk-download their art for machine learning, and from artists who never consented for their work to be used in this way. The argument about consent is legally hazy. Scraping, or the process of using bots to extract content and data from a website, is legal; disable it, and Google ceases to exist. The argument about style is also hazy ー a dubious claim is that learning by observation is illegal.
The profession of artists and writers has always been in what Nassim Nicholas Taleb terms in his book The Black Swan (2007), ‘Extremistan’ ー a world where 1 percent takes home 99 percent of the reward. The 99 percent then fights over the scraps. And now it seems we must reckon with a machine reducing the field even further.
Of the cabal of people who make machines, some focus on extending human ability and some on replicating it. As of the 21st century, these lines are blurred because new tools and technologies quickly become a part of ‘our’ abilities. For example, Photoshop and digital art websites are not naturally occurring phenomena, yet many artists exist today because these tools exist.
Machines take the bottom end of a value chain and automate it, putting complex human skill sets out of use or democratising them, depending on which side of obsoletion you’re standing on.
Batman on holiday in Van Gogh impressionist painting by DALLE-2
The current controversy around AI-generated art is largely because of Stable Diffusion, an open-source model that does what OpenAI, DALL-E and Google Imagen do ー use text commands to generate art. The difference is that DALL-E and Imagen kept their ingredients behind closed doors and corporate paywalls; Stable Diffusion dumped everything on the public for free.
The sheer publicity of these events enabled two things: first, a wider range of artists came to understand how their works were being used, and second, to let people build things on top of these open-source models. In just weeks, it seems, we have seen AI-generated motion capture; AI-powered programming; AI-generated 3D models of brains built from MRIs; AI-powered virtual assistants; even AI-generated video clips. Legions of human tasks have been made easier; what once took a hundred people might take just one person and a computer.
I suspect that the current tidal wave of fear stems from the fact that the machine is too close to us, too fast, and far too competent. Consider that Kevin Hess, an AI-wielding artist, made a stunning 706-page graphic novel of philosopher Olaf Stapledon’s sci-fi novel Star Maker (1937) in around 100 hours. At just over eight minutes a page, Hess and his AI of choice are doing the work of multiple artists and typographers. Skill sets that many have laboured over for years have been rendered not obsolete, but so easy to access that it might as well be. This is the more practical argument: that artists who scrape by on a handful of commissions will vanish. Or as Jason M Allen, who won an art prize using an AI, said to the New York Times: ‘Art is dead.’
Another good place to look is the Moog synthesiser, a staple of 1970s prog-rock, built by Robert Moog. Like Stable Diffusion, it wasn’t particularly new technology, but it was put together in a way that made the technology usable and affordable. It also put many session musicians out of work. Today, much of what we call music exists not despite the synthesiser, but because of it. What if fear of the machine at the time put the Moog out of production?
Furthermore, there is a notion that AI development is somehow altruistic. The current aesthetic of the AI movement is not ‘mad-scientist-out-to-dazzle-world.’ It is very much a corporate endeavour, very Silicon Valley-venture-capitalist in outlook. Its message to those it replaces is: ‘This is going to be an app soon.’ Robert Moog adopted a much kinder approach, working first with composers and musicians to build custom devices and add features to his synthesiser. But what we face now is a wave of killer apps, as Sequoia Capital puts it. The argument is couched more in terms like ‘potential to generate trillions of dollars of economic value’ than 'Hey, look at this cool thing I made!' The latter attitude was strongest in the AI world circa 2012. The talent building these AIs also believes in the Silicon Valley formula - build, monetise, IPO, repeat.
Gandhi on a Harley Davidson in the style of Robert Crumb by DALLE-2
It’s easy to react to the aesthetics, and this is a prime trigger for artists, for aesthetics are a large part of their work. On the consumer end, we are facing waves of apps that will take our words and turn them into pictures while we sip our tea.
Much of this art is excellent. From film to video games, the quality of indie productions will rise. A new generation of artists will get a massive lever to play with: for example, Stable Diffusion has now found its way into Photoshop, allowing you to imagine what the Mona Lisa might look like had Da Vinci kept tinkering with it. Likewise, indie game developers can generate concept art and 3D assets and produce a much more polished rendering of that dream game to work with.
Unsurprisingly, much of this progress will put money into corporate coffers as savvy marketing departments start cutting down on human commissions and tell an intern to play with an app instead. Much of this will raise the bar to entry for new artists, who will struggle to build a name for themselves in the face of a global machine that can produce commissions in seconds.
We’re essentially in that synthesiser moment again. The rather Extremistan game of being a writer or an artist continues. The tools however have changed and we must adapt.
And I have no doubt that we will.
Yudhanjaya Wijeratne is a Sri Lankan science fiction author, activist and researcher. His work has appeared in Wired, Foreign Policy and Slate. His novel ‘The Salvage Crew’ was lauded as one of the best science fiction and fantasy books of 2020.
Banner Illustration Credit: Green Chromide