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What Does Artificial Intelligence Mean for Artists?

Last week someone sent me a site showcasing music developed by A.I. It was truly awful and the singing sounded like a drunk guy doing karaoke at 3am in a seedy bar in west Texas. My guess is we're still at least six months away from computers being able to write music that's actually not terrible. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it's another year or two away. But eventually, there will come a day when A.I. is able to write music deemed beautiful by humans. It's probably already out there. So what does this mean for those who create music or art or literature? Is this the end? Will the "starving artist" really starve this time? I think the answer is complicated but hopeful.

It seems clear to me that those who do "art for hire" are most at risk of being put out of business. Why would a small business hire a copywriter or a graphic designer to create an ad campaign when A.I. can do a decent job for almost no cost? That's not to say that the professions of graphic design or copywriting or music composition are going away altogether. But they will look a lot different in the next decade.

For example, imagine a graphic designer using A.I. to build the basics of a design and refining that basic design to conform more specifically to their company's brand or campaign details. A.I. is essentially just another tool for the artist, but it still takes the knowhow and experience of a professional to make the finishing touches. In the same way, a musician may use A.I. to come up with musical ideas based on a specific genre and then use those building blocks to create her own opera.

That A.I. will become a powerful tool for creatives is inevitable, but is this a net good to society and artists? It seems that every technological advance since the beginning of time involves a trade off. Fire allowed for cooking, but cooking inside a tent or a hut was damaging to the lungs because of smoke inhalation. The first phones allowed for instant communication with those far away. But they also allowed for instant communication with those far away. And who wants to be at the mercy of a ringing telephone (to paraphrase C.S. Lewis)? Similarly, A.I. will certainly have negative effects on the art world.

Consider the proliferation of our current artistic tools. Photoshop, Garageband, and Grammarly for example all allow artists, or for that matter anyone, to participate as a creative. At first glance, it seems incredible to democratize art with these tools so that anyone can create. But has it contributed to an overall higher level of art? You can put the most expensive paintbrush into the paws of a dog, but it doesn't mean you're going to get a masterpiece. (Elephants are a different story apparently.) Just as auto tools do not create a master mechanic, A.I. isn't going to create capable artists or musicians. Expect to see more mediocre art in the future. As an aside, I recognize the irony that I am not a professional writer and yet I have a blog of sorts.

Another negative to A.I. is that eventually it will become skilled enough at creating art to put many people out of work. But for those who create art for art's sake, I don't think A.I. will take over completely. Even if we eventually have Star Trek holodeck-level art, people will still want to create it themselves. And if people create it, I have to believe others will prefer that to what computers have created. Just as 3D animation has its uncanny valley, A.I. will have a period of creating art that is off-putting to humans.

So what is the upside of A.I. in art? Is there any hope for artists? Some art is utilitarian. It's meant to be used for some other end—selling a product, helping you relax etc. Artists who are involved in this type of art should be prepared for a rough future. But pure art is meant to be enjoyed on its own—to bring joy to the audience, to provoke thought, to evoke emotion. Of course, A.I. could accomplish this too, but I think it will be a long time before it can both surpass the skill level of human artists to communicate these profound intangibles while also being preferred by human audiences. Of course, it's anyone's guess what will really happen, but I know at least a few folks who will not stop creating art even if a computer can do it "better."

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