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AI Art and the Controversy Surrounding the Tech Breakthrough

Lush fantasy landscape created in MidJourney, created by Tiger Hebert.
Lush fantasy landscape created in MidJourney.

As a fantasy author and a lover of fantastical art, I've found myself pondering the nuances of the recent and ongoing controversy regarding the recent explosion of Artificial Intelligence (AI) generating software. Now to be clear, art generating software isn't brand new, but the rise in it's effectiveness, quality, and widespread usage are currently at an all-time high. And despite the controversy that surrounds it, it is only going to continue to grow at a in both quality and use—unless the legal landscape drastically changes. For those that are unfamiliar with what is going on, here's a quick and overly simplified run down. Software developers have found ways to use AI to create art on demand. For example, let's say you really want to create a picture of a cat in a superhero costume with a cape, and you wanted it in a comic book style. You could write a prompt in one of the current AI software platforms in an attempt to get something similar to what you want. The AI will then use Machine Learning (which is really just another way of saying AI) to scour the internet for pieces of after to help it understand what it's being asked to reproduce.

Having fun with cats & MidJourney, created by Tiger Hebert.
Having fun with cats & MidJourney

In this scenario, I used MidJourney to attempt to create what I was looking for. Naturally, graphical artists are generally having a vitriolic response to this. The idea that just anybody can attempt to use a software program to create art is concerning, as you might expect. The truth is most artists have spent years and years to develop their talents and hone their skills. The reality is that now you don't necessarily need those aforementioned skills to produce art that can be of surprisingly high quality. Naturally, that means that some artists' business could eventually be negatively impacted by this technological shift. I can understand how this naturally produces a fear based response. Unfortunately, that fear based response has lead to statements that using AI Art is illegal, unethical, and many even go as far as to say that it is stealing.

For many of them, it's all about the morality of the issue. From what I've heard and read, it appears that the common sentiment is not just that they might be replaced someday, but that the AI is learning from their work in the process. The common argument is that these software programs scour the internet for examples of said pieces or styles of art, to understand how to recreate it. The artist's argument is that they didn't give permission for their art to be used in this capacity. And to be fair to said artists, there are cases where some of the programs even attempted to replicate artist signatures & watermarks (This last bit does bear discussing further, but we'll have to come back to that).

I find this whole position interesting and frustrating in many ways. I could go on for an hour about how artists spend years studying other artists and art styles. They will then be mimicking these artists and styles as they grow and learn. This same pattern of behavior is not just seen in graphical arts either. You see it in music, dance, theatre, and so on and so forth. In fact it's not limited to the arts whatsoever. The pattern of observing, then simulating behavior or techniques is seen everywhere in humanity from athletics to parenting. We observe, then we attempt to emulate. It's how we learn.

Tiny dancer learning, created in MidJourney by Tiger Hebert.
Tiny dancer learning, created in MidJourney

The real problem is that AI can just do it faster, and that threatens us.

It threatens us in the same way that the Industrial Revolution replaced small businesses in the late 1700s and early 1800s. It threatens us in the same way that telecommunication technology replaced switchboard operators in the 1930s.

It threatens us in the same way that assembly lines and robots have replaced factory & warehouse workers over the last forty years. Ultimately, it's what technology does. It continues to advance and find ways to do things better, faster, and cheaper—and the reality is, it's not going to stop here.

Now about the comment about the AI programs literally attempting to copy watermarks and signatures, this is an issue, but probably not what it appears to be. This is more of an issue of how the software is used, rather than the software itself. If a user determines to use AI to copy or replicate another user's work, rather than creating something new and unique, then I'm sure problems like this will arise. At the end of the day, it's really no different than producing art that is licensed and copyrighted (Let's use Disney for example), then attempting to sell it without proper licensing. For example, I cannot produce Star Wars related art then sell it unless I have paid for the appropriate licensure.

This real issue of morality here lies in the usage, not the tool.

To further elaborate, hammers are wonderful tools. However, they should not be used to whack people—unless you're a character in a fantasy world.

Hammer Time! MidJourney attempt at creating Dominar Digwell, created by Tiger Hebert.
Hammer Time! MidJourney attempt at creating Dominar Digwell

Now many of you will ask, "How will you feel when an unskilled person (or corporation) is able to use AI to learn from my books to produce other books?" It's a completely fair question. And it's a question that authors and other content creators are indeed facing. After seeing what advances this technology has made in just a few months, I certainly don't scoff at the notion. AI is already being used to create a number of written content from ad content to blogs and clickbait articles. It's true, and it will continue to advance until books are being produced. They may or may not be any good, but it will happen.

The cold hard truth is, my opinion doesn't matter. Imitation happens. It's just part of life. I have worked hard to create a clear and recognizable (albeit not very well known) author brand. My brand is this; epic fantasy books that aim to inspire and edify, and that dare to hope. My books fit into the small(ish) but emerging sub-genre we like to call Noblebright Fantasy. I've purposely spent over 10 years writing books that are decidedly different from the mainstream (even among indie authors).

Yet with that being said, I don't own the genre. I don't own writing massive battles. I don't own writing stories about orcs that are the good guys. I don't own writing about stories filled with faith and hope.

If people use software to emulate (not copy) my books someday, there's nothing I can do about it—except continue to write better books.

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