AI and the arts

posted in: Life and things | 0

Artificial Intelligence has become the flavour of the year, with much discussion on the merits and the dangers of the new technology. Many years ago, around 1990 or so, I attended a class in programming for AI. Back then it was (of course) very rudimentary but the idea was that the program we were learning to write would learn as it was used. In other words, it would save answers it was given and use those in responses to future queries.

I recall being most unimpressed with how it worked. But it was a start and now we have ChatGPT and Midjourney (and Bing and Dall-E etc etc etc).

For some people in writing circles the fear of AI is almost palpable, as it is for artists and illustrators. And that’s to some extent understandable because the use of these tools will unavoidably lead to loss of jobs. But these things need to be put into perspective. I’ve used AI to generate images which I’ve subsequently used on my book covers. But I don’t sell enough books these days to be able to afford hiring a book cover designer to do the work. I reckon I’m good enough with Photoshop to do my own. So nobody’s losing money – except maybe the photographers who sell their pictures on stock photo sites.

That’s another issue. Remember, I write SF Romance. Sure, there are lots and lots of photos of men and women available, but there are hardly any (none) of men wearing military dress uniform. Especially when you’re after a uniform that doesn’t shout US (or Russian) navy. And if you want a non-Caucasian man in a uniform – forget it. I’m not affluent enough to be able to afford a private photoshoot with actors in costume, so Midjourney offers me a reasonably priced alternative. I can get exactly the look I want and tweak it a bit in Photoshop if needed. Then there’s the other aspects of SF. You won’t find too many aliens on the stock photo sites – especially the ones in my head. There are cyborgs and spaceships but not too many, so you end up seeing the same pictures on book covers over and over and over again. With Midjourney, the image is unique.

In fact, quite a few artists are embracing tools like Midjourney. They don’t want to waste their time trawling through pages and pages of photos on stock photo sites looking for something that sort of, almost, kind of fits, any more than I do. And a skilled artist willing to learn how to prompt an AI to produce what is required, and then tweak in Photoshop or similar can do stunning work. In the image above I created the pictures of the two people on the cover separately in Midjourney and put them together in Photoshop. I also created that wonderful spaceship in Midjourney.

OK, we’ve got an AI cover. What about the words? I’m sure everybody has heard of AI’s cranking out a book in a day and putting it up for sale on Amazon. It can probably be done. But would it be any good? As in readable and interesting. I can only tell you about my experience. I’ve played with writing AIs. There are some which actually are designed to help people write books. Sudowrite is one, Plottr is another. There are doubtless plenty more. To me, the emphasis is ‘to help’. These tools are like having an editor to help you tell your story. I found I don’t have the patience to try to force the AI to tell the story that’s in my head. It keeps trying to change the plot, add characters, refuse to take you to another planet. Etc.

What they’re good at is coming up with lists of possible names for planets or characters. Given a few basic guidelines, they’ll come up with a character description (which can be changed to suit). Or they’ll rewrite a piece of prose for you if you’d like to expand, say, a description of a scene. However, I have found any such rewrites are full of flowery prose that I wouldn’t use in a fit. Although said flowery prose might give me ideas, and that is useful. For what it’s worth I can honestly say if you read one of my books, be assured the words came out of my head.

I’ve often seen artists and writers complaining that AI is stealing from legitimate writers and artists, that the AI plagiarizes. It doesn’t. An online friend explains her stance on AI this way. She applies the same rules to computers as she does to people. If it’s okay for people to learn by studying other people’s work, why isn’t it okay for a computer to learn the same way? Makes a lot of sense to me.

The AI learns how to write or paint by learning from a multitude of samples. In a similar way, a human artist or writer learns from studying the work of many artists. That’s how it’s done. There’s a painting in Melbourne’s National Gallery that was thought to be a Rembrandt. Eventually, it was determined it had been painted by one of his students (who had copied his style). It’s the same with writing. You learn to write by reading. You write your own stories in your own style – but it will have been influenced by what you’ve read.

AIs do not plagiarize. They do not pinch paragraphs of text. Humans do that. AIs work on a predictive model, much like what happens on your mobile phone as you type in letters.

An AI can certainly write a good essay or a blog post, provided you’re willing to check the facts. But I think we have a little way to go before an AI can write something like The Lord of the Rings.

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