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Artificial intelligence art raises ethical issues, use with caution
January 24, 2023
In December 2022, I noticed an odd trend in Twitter profile pictures. Profiles upon profiles were represented by pretty, swirling portraits of their users. But the trend was not one of art, in the traditional sense: users had uploaded photos of themselves to an app called Lensa, which used artificial intelligence, or AI, to create customized portraits. While the portraits themselves seem harmless and visually interesting, art generated by artificial intelligence raises serious ethical questions.
First, artificial intelligence systems can’t produce something out of nothing. According to NBC News, programmers use large online datasets to train artificial intelligence systems to learn common arrangements of words or pixels. For language-based AI programs, like the popular ChatGPT, this data comes from the millions of freely available web pages. Visual AI models use a data set of images. They analyze and combine data from photographs and artwork posted online. When users prompt visual AI programs with words or with a selfie, the program uses the dataset to produce a ‘new’ image.
If you examine enough Lensa-generated portraits, you might find something disturbing: the mangled signatures of artists. Many artists post their work on social media platforms or online stores, and many sign their art so it can be identified as theirs. AI datasets compile art from across the internet without artists’ consent. They analyze the data and spit it back out to users, leaving the disfigured remains of a signature behind. The developers of these apps and models, which collect fees from users as well as advertising revenue, financially benefit from the work of these artists. Meanwhile, the artists themselves don’t receive any credit or compensation, even though they created the raw data needed to train the models.
Art is as much about the process as the product. Art created by humans includes artists’ unique perspectives and experiences. Human artists can create original and innovative styles and spend months, years, and maybe decades working on an artwork. In contrast, AI art can synthesize other artworks in mere seconds. It uses existing data to create something ‘new’, but it lacks the true ingenuity that humans can create. People appreciate art for more than just its results, or its use for profile pictures or advertising. We appreciate human-created art because we know the time invested in it and the thoughts and intentions behind the artwork. It is a window into an artist’s mind and develops empathy and understanding for different experiences. AI art can create images virtually indistinguishable from human artists, but AI art lacks the meaning and intention inherent in human artworks.
None of these issues mean that AI art is bad and should never be used. AI art can be practical and useful. It can create interesting and humorous images, and it represents impressive technological advancement. However, in acknowledging that advancement, we need to also acknowledge the ethical issues and be thoughtful about the nuances of the situation. In other words, we can use our unique, irreplaceable human qualities to build a true understanding of the implications of AI art.
Anyone close to me knows my love for Mary Shelley’s genius 1818 novel “Frankenstein.” “Frankenstein” is widely considered a criticism of progress for the sake of progress. It created the archetype of the mad scientist, whose project turns monstrous. But “Frankenstein” isn’t a universal criticism of technology. It shows the dangers of forgetting humanity in scientific and technological advancement. The creature does not start out as a murderous monster—he is thoughtful, literate and kind. It is only when his humanity is demeaned and denied that he starts committing atrocities.
In our society today, technological advancement, including artificial intelligence, is an exciting field. But we should not forget the human impacts of advancement. We should credit and pay artists whose work is used to train AI models, and we should value, celebrate, and fairly compensate human artists for the essential role they play in society. While apps like Lensa are fun to play with, artificial intelligence art needs to be treated with thoughtfulness and caution.