Soulless Self-expression & the Rise of AI-Generated Art
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Soulless Self-expression & the Rise of AI-Generated Art

Soulless Self-expression & the Rise of AI-Generated Art

Artificial intelligence is being used to generate everything from deep and meaningful digital paintings to the next internet meme image. What does this mean for these mediums?


Recently, the internet has been abuzz with funny pictures that seem to lay bare the strangest and most whimsical thoughts users have ever had. Everything from former Presidents in drag to fictional monsters engaging in recreational sports, these images have tickled the collective fancy of the internet’s less business-oriented denizens more so than anything else in recent memory.  

Where do they come from, you might ask?

The State of NLP & Neural Networks 

These images are generated by DALL.E, an AI neural network developed and trained by OpenAI. This particular neural network is a substantial improvement over prior iterations like GPT-3, to the tune of 12 billion parameters. This means the neural network can produce just about any image by drawing from an incomprehensibly large (for ordinary people) catalog of references.   

Furthermore, DALL.E does all this using the power of Natural Language Processing

Natural Language Processing (or NLP for short) is a branch of computer science and artificial intelligence that, in short, aims to give computers and AI, specifically, the ability to understand human text and speech. A cursory look at any modern smartphone will reveal how much progress has already been made in this endeavor. 

After all, Siri and Cortana have been able to take dictation and answer trivialities for a while now. 

Now that this development has passed on to the commercial space, the next step in the development process comes naturally. The software must be trained to understand more abstract concepts and references. This would lead to a level of AI understanding that could be termed conversational.  

The success of this next phase is what we see in DALL.E and similar systems; an AI system that can seemingly interpret even the most fantastical nonsense that users can conjure up to stress-test the software. 

At this point, it might not be clear what any of this has to do with art. That’s where the results of the AI search come in. Going a step further from comprehending natural language directives, DALL.E can reproduce the concepts visually, leading to some very interesting possibilities. 

The Next Reinnesance?

As many have already discovered, programs like DALL.E can easily churn out rather impressive digital art in a wide range of visual styles, with or without specific artistic directions given along with the specified subject matter. In addition to doing this relatively effortlessly, these programs possess just enough inaccuracy to seem like authentic art. 

While some come across this purely by coincidence, others have been acutely aware of this ability, with many actually already leveraging it for myriad benefits. Social media platforms are already seeing a growing base of people using these programs to generate art based on interesting prompts. 

These users go about this with varying degrees of transparency on what’s really happening, with some seemingly promoting the awe-inspiring abilities of computers. Others are decidedly less honest, effectively taking credit for art that took no effort on their part.  

This may seem to be a victimless crime from a certain perspective, but it’s only a symptom of a much more severe issue for creative mediums everywhere. Furthermore, the art world might have fired the first salvos in this impending conflict between computers and composers.

The Logical Endpoint of Digital Art and its Consequences.

While the potential for these artificial creations to find themselves in conflict with flesh and blood artists is clear, a departure from tradition might be at the center of this. Some might say that by making the switch to digital art almost en masse, artists themselves invited this inevitability into their space. 

The process of gradual obsoletion is an inescapable part of the march of progress, and technological development is one of the most prominent examples. Simply put, the more reliant on technology a profession or individual becomes, the more likely it is that advancement will see that person or profession become obsolete as AI gains the ability to fill in those gaps in its operation. 

Innovations in branches of AI and tech such as Natural Language Processing, Machine Learning, and more have given rise to a legitimate question about the value of the medium. If many artists need computers to make their art and the computers can take out the middleman and do it themselves, what is it worth?

Incorporeal Value and the Future of Expression

Even before the recent wave of curiosity, the sanctity of art as a form of distinct human expression has been under stress for quite some time. 

One particularly obvious challenge to the norm was the use of art in NFTs. Here, creators, both legitimate and opportunistic, found themselves incentivized to do away with any real expression in favor of (for lack of a more apt term) soulless, easily reproducible designs meant to sell at inordinate prices. 

Technology has greatly simplified the artistic process and increased possibilities beyond what was feasible at certain skill levels across the board. However, this new accessibility is the same path that has led to the dawning of what might be a serious ideological threat to the heart of self-expression.

A Deeper Consideration 

While this issue is likely to keep developing, some in the creative space have gotten ahead of the confusion and found meaning in the latest trends. Similar to the reclamation of NFTs as a space that could foster genuine expression and retain the value of the artist’s work, there could be a more noble aspect to the use of AI in art. 

While the idea may seem a bit apologetic, AI-generated art as a tool of some form of larger work of self-expression might be possible. 

Instead of causing the art form to flounder or flood the market with meaningless but beautiful work, AI art could lead to a reimagining of the scope and medium of visual art with layers of undiscovered complexity that we are as of yet not able to fathom. Only the future will tell what the full picture will turn out to be.