Thursday 9 March 2023

Is Artificial Intelligence the Work of the Devil?

AI Artwork for boards, Literary Hauntings, Tartarus Press, 2022.
Artificial Intelligence is likely to revolutionise a wide variety of human activities, but while it may prove beneficial in many ways, it also has the potential to make some established occupations redundant, from mundane and repetitive jobs right through to positions in the creative and problem-solving professions. The anger of those who rail against AI is heartfelt and not without justification, but one cannot help being reminded of the nineteenth-century Luddites who destroyed textile machines in the belief they could halt industrialisation. They didn’t. It is not possible to put the AI genii back in the bottle, which means, like it or not, we are going to have to adapt to it, work with it, and consider ways to mitigate any damage.

In our world of publishing there are two major concerns relating to AI. The first is AI generated text, and the second is AI art. Thankfully, AI text is still in its infancy. It can create quite useful results if asked to write about widely-considered, factual matters, and it will do so with a level of competence that is likely to become more impressive over time. However, anything that requires a little specialist knowledge is slightly outside the mainstream, or is discussed in printed books rather than shared online, causes AI generated text to be full of obvious mistakes. The biggest concern at the moment is not that Artificial Intelligence is knowingly trying to mislead us*, but that it is very good at appearing plausible when it cannot find the information it requires. With just a little material it will generate a believable fiction to cover lacunae in its knowledge. (If asked for references to back up its claims, it will even create impressive-sounding but non-existent references.) AI may have already made redundant some authors of factual material, but editors are needed now more than ever because of AI’s dangerous potential for misleading readers.

Considering its ability to pass off fiction as fact, it is perhaps surprising that AI text is also failing to generate plausible creative content. Its attempts at stories, poetry, etc, are laughable, although these are likely to get better with time (and maybe not much time). At the moment the main problem in the world of publishing is that some people are using it to overwhelm editors with third-rate submissions. Looking into the future, if AI text continues to improve, there is a possible scenario of publishers having to choose between the work of human authors and AI generated texts of an equal quality. This would raise some very profound philosophical questions about the nature of literature and why we read it.

 Book jacket ideas created with AI.

However, the most pressing questions that need to be addressed today relate to AI art, because it is already being used by publishers, including Tartarus Press. Some AI art can be incredibly good, although it is not always recognised that some experience of writing the correct prompts is needed, and that digital re-touching is almost always required (the analogy is with editors who work on AI text). Is AI art likely to damage the livelihoods of artists? Almost certainly, especially commercial artists. For publishers, it is another alternative to conventional, hand-produced art in exactly the same way that photography became an alternative at the end of the nineteenth century, through to digital art in the early twenty-first century.   

AI art is a powerful and beguiling tool, but those using AI are not artists. Rather, they are akin to old-fashioned art directors who would previously have had discussions with a human artist as to what kind of image was required and achievable for a specific brief, asking for alternative options to consider, and fine-tuning the result. It is possible to generate good quality AI images in a fraction of the time and cost of working with a real artist, but AI art generated with simple prompts is easily recognisable as such by anyone who has used it for a short time. The creator of AI art has to be aware of such failings as its inability to generate hands with the expected numbers of fingers and thumbs. (In our field of weird and strange fiction, the errors in AI art generation, may, though, produce unintended and atmospheric results!)

AI art can create images in virtually any style you can imagine.

Before we go any further, there is a major ethical discussion to be had about copyright. Artificial Intelligence programmes ‘learn’ by feeding indiscriminately and voraciously on information supplied to them. It is possible to simply ask for a picture to be created in the style of an established artist, and this not only feels wrong, but any attempt to pass the work off as being by that artist is obviously illegal. This, though, is not a modern dilemma—the art world has had to grapple with similar problems down the centuries. There have always been ‘schools’ inspired by successful artists, outright imitators, and those who study the work of predecessors which they then attempt to improve. One major problem is that AI in its text and art forms is unable to ‘show its workings’ (as maths teachers still require).

There will always be a demand for artists using traditional materials and media, and many artists feel compelled to draw and paint whether or not they receive employment or recognition. Times will be getting much more difficult for them, but that has been the case not just since the invention of lithographic reproduction and photography, and most recently since digital artists appeared on the scene. Artists have always found that they need to adapt—very few work in a way that could be considered ‘pure’, standing at an easel with their subject in front of them. At Tartarus Press we have very recently been working with an artist who paints subjects in oil inspired by their own imagination, another who uses oils and works from photographs, another who draws in pen and ink based on all manner of existing images, and another whose work is entirely digital, but who does not use AI. Few artists are ‘pure’ in their art—they are on a spectrum, not only for how they conceive imagery, but how it is created and manipulated . . . and the furthest boundary of that spectrum has just been moved further away again in a manner we could not have conceived of only a few years ago. I am aware of artists who now use AI to inspire conventional artwork that is rendered by hand on paper.

To sum up, AI is here, and it isn’t going away. We believe that it should be possible to work with it ethically and harness its many possibilities. And we will also continue to work with real, living artists!

Recent art on Tartarus Press volumes by contemporary artists (left to right) Joseph Dawson, Kathleen Jennings, Gina Litherland, R.B. Russell, Eric Hansen, Reggie Oliver and Stephen J. Clark.

* This is not the place to discuss the concerns that AI might be used to manipulate our thoughts and even control our lives. There have always been information and news providers with biases and agendas, and just because their dubious content can now be generated by computers rather than people doesn’t alter our need to be vigilant. At all times, even before the advent of the internet and digital fakery, we have had to be wary of who is trying to exert influence by offering partial information or downright lying. To really understand the dangers of the mass media, we have to go back to Caxton and the first printing press.

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