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  • J. J. Fischer

AI in Art: A Thought Experiment

With recent advances in artificial intelligence technology now posing a serious threat to artists and other creative content producers, the ethics of using AI is being hotly debated.

One of the most prominent and compelling arguments against AI is that it was trained on huge datasets fed by vast amounts of images taken from human artists (without their express permission or compensation), and therefore constitutes intellectual theft. Others argue that the product that AI creates is entirely "new' and therefore is not stealing.

To shed some light on this complex and divisive topic, I'd like to propose a thought experiment. Whether you are an author wondering whether or not to use AI to grow your platform, or an artist whose income has taken a hit in the wake of AI, or another kind of creative who's somehow become entangled in the complexities of AI and its use, hopefully it will provide some much-needed clarity on this issue.

A Thought Experiment:

Imagine you live in a large city that is absolutely crazy about mosaics. All the street art is mosaic-based; the footpaths all have pretty mosaic features and borders; every home has a unique mosaic mural for their kitchen backsplash and a colorful bathroom depicting their favorite patterns and subjects. And when people have time off, they spend their time coming up with new and interesting patterns for different projects.

As a result of the current craze, mosaic tile companies are booming, and every company has delivery trucks on the road, bringing tiles to hundreds, if not thousands of different jobs.

Scenario 1:

One day, one of the trucks' back doors opens on the freeway and bit by bit, tiles are distributed everywhere, the trail of half-open boxes stretching for miles on end. Since mosaics look just as good with broken, miscellaneous tiles, everyone rushes to scavenge the tiles for their various projects. The owner of the truck concludes that letting people take the tiles saves him from cleaning up the mess and decides to cut his losses.

As it turns out, the boxes all have his company's logo on them and therefore the lost tiles bring even more people into his store to buy from him. All's well that ends well.

Scenario 2:

The increasing demand for unique mosaic designs means that the tile trade in this fictional town is hotter than ever. Some types of tiles become so rare that they get sold during secret, exclusive, invite-only auctions. Black markets take some tiles underground. Middlemen spring up, selling tiles from a variety of suppliers to consumers.

A month or so after the first truck accident, another truck from a different company breaks down, the victim of a flat tyre. Remembering the last truck, passers-by loot the truck until all the tiles are gone, even though the back doors weren't open. The owner of this company tries to involve the police to get back his merchandise, but the looters are long gone.

Scenario 3:

An earthquake in a country that's a major tile supplier causes widespread shortages in tiles. But the enthusiasm for mosaics isn't letting up. A few more trucks get robbed, some in broad daylight.

One of the middlemen companies, who's familiar with the product ranges of each supplier and has been watching closely the kind of tiles that people go for, starts to produce their own line of tiles on the side. They're just different enough to not look like the originals. Because they're a little more generic, you can use them to create even more varieties of mosaics in a whole range of styles. The tiles can also be produced more cheaply, which means the demand for tiles can finally be met.

Within a few months, the middlemen have become the main supplier of tiles--not only that, but they've started offering consumers an option to do the mosaics directly. They employ their own tradesmen who will come and complete the mosaics for a smaller fee than people would have been charged by the original craftsmen.

The tile suppliers and the tradesmen who originally worked on the mosaics are outraged as they are both slowly edged out of the market. The middlemen insist that their tiles are markedly different than the ones that they used to sell and argue that because mosaics are basically an amalgamation of different tiles in an infinite number of designs, no one can really lay claim to "originality."

Who is right in this scenario?

I see the first scenario, where the truck accidentally scatters tiles everywhere but the owner decides to give them away for free, a little like royalty-free/stock websites--Pixabay, Pexels, Unsplash, etc. These sites use royalty-free images to draw people to their business, often in a bid to sign them up to paid subscriptions or sites (e.g., Shutterstock, Adobe Stock Images). Using the images/tiles in this scenario is ethical because the owner has granted their express permission.

Hopefully, you can see how it gets a bit more complex in the other two scenarios. Most people would probably see the second scenario as outright stealing, because the company owner hasn't given permission for people to take his tiles, even though at first, it "seems" like the same kind of situation as scenario one.

The third scenario is, I think, most akin to the AI situation we're dealing with today. In this scenario, the sneaky middlemen use their experience with supplier product lines and consumer preferences to come up with new products that are subtle (or not so subtle) reinventions of the old ones. They then use their stronger position in the market to supplant the original suppliers and bring in their own tradespeople to create new designs.

Now, some people might argue that the middlemen in this scenario are simply being entrepreneurial. In the world of Western capitalism, their business deserves to thrive because they innovate and adapt. Nobody's tiles have been actually stolen. Nobody's truck has been looted. And creativity is ultimately served because the number of designs that can be produced by these new tiles is infinite. It's the democratization of mosaic art.

But the AI scenario we contend with today is more complex than a fictional city caught up in a mosaics craze. And thus, this is where the thought experiment becomes insufficient, because AI digital art can be thought of as an amalgamation of different pixels, taken from millions of images of (illegally obtained, uncompensated) source material.

While some will insist that AI algorithms are merely being trained to produce art (thereby mimicking the process of human learning), the discovery of original author watermarks on AI images makes it clear that AI content is not comprised of original creations, but represents visual tapestries or mosaics of existing art.

It's a little like stealing one tile from every mosaic artist or tile supplier all over the world. It's just one tile...what's the big deal, right? But whether you steal one tile or twenty thousand, someone's property has still been misappropriated for personal or commercial gain, and the original owner has not been compensated. That original owner is then slowly edged out of the market by the very thieves who've stolen their work.

As many have argued in relation to AI and art, I believe theft is theft. While the new mosaic tiles and designs in the scenario described above do look slightly different to the original ones, the reality is that the middlemen have profited from their unique position and familiarity with supplier product ranges and consumer tastes. They have used their privilege to engage in a kind of intellectual theft.

Another example to make this point clearer: If a kid copies their friend's work but makes it just different enough so it doesn't resemble the original (and thereby attract the teacher's attention), we'd still say they've plagiarized. Why? Because they haven't done the hard yards to find out the information themselves, they haven't cited the original source, and they're passing off another person's work as their own.

But isn't all art basically inspired by other artists anyway? (Didn't Solomon himself say, "There's nothing new under the sun"?)

My husband, playing devil's advocate on this debate, pointed out that when I fill out my book cover designer's questionnaire, I often include images or book covers as a point of reference. This is an excellent point, especially since many book covers rely on established visual motifs or conventions to create a particular feel for a book's genre.

But I think what makes this scenario different from the one I've described above is that the images I've procured shape the designer's vision--they don't become a direct part of it (which would be plagiarism). It's a bit like, in our mosaics analogy, seeing all your friends' kitchen backsplashes and then going home to create your own. You've been inspired by those works--but you didn't pry off their tiles to use on your own design. You might even ask their permission to use the same kinds of tiles (from the same suppliers) or to choose the same subject to depict in your own way.

For this reason, it's vital to choose a book cover designer that only uses royalty-free or stock images. Even if they don't manipulate the images very much, they've still been given permission to use them...just like in Scenario 1.

What about personal/non-commercial use?

Many of my fellow authors have started using AI images on their social media to help readers visualize their characters or particular scenes from their books. And on the surface, this seems like a more defensible use of AI, because it's not for commercial use, and therefore does not make money for the author.

But I want to propose two things, which may make me sound like a bit of a party pooper (because let's face it, seeing your characters brought to life in art is great fun). The first point is that, if you're an author, everything you do on your platform is ultimately to sell more books. So while these images may not be directly used for commercial gain, they do elevate your profile and therefore allow you to sell more books and make more money.

The second consideration is that even if you don't personally profit from these images, do you want to be an active participant in software which has openly acknowledged stealing from artists without compensation? The more users of a program, the more popular it will become. And companies may be emboldened to steal more art, thus perpetuating the problem.

Piracy is not, and has never been, a victimless crime. It's always the owner of creative content who misses out on crucial compensation. Even if you only use these images for personal "inspiration," the reality is that you have contributed to the proliferation of an industry whose foundation is built on theft.

Why not support AI technology whose algorithms have been ethically trained, their source material used with permission and appropriately compensated? (At present, these are few and far between, but with greater demand and clamor, more will almost certainly come into existence.)

An endorsement of human artists

I hope this sheds some light on why I, as an author, cannot and will not support AI programs or AI artists/designers as a rule, unless I determine their acquisition and use of other peoples' art to be ethical.

I'd like to finish up by directing you to the artists who've so magnificently illustrated each of my published series.

Check out these one-of-a-kind illustrations by Julia JM for my pirate fantasy duology. I asked Julia to incorporate the background of my world, Azazel, in each character portrait. She did an incredible job!

This artwork was for my debut duology, by the wonderfully talented Laura Hollingsworth, who also did some of the art for Keeper of the Lost Cities. See the detail on that brushwork? The way she's captured the light on El's red hair? *chef's kiss*

Finally, this is some art by Marissa Clement for my Nightingale Trilogy. Marissa absolutely outdid herself with this art, especially with the beautiful iridescent green light winding around Cass.

By contrast, this is what AI came up with when I asked it to give me a silhouette illustration of a teacup:

Let's support human artists, people!

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