The rise of AI nihilism
Let's put the future of creative fields into the hands of individuals who don't even know what creativity is ...what could go wrong
“Extraordinary technology brings extraordinary recklessness.” -Abhijit Naskar
There’s an ongoing meme in the AI discussion, that basically humans will no longer be necessary for creative tasks. I don’t agree with this, but let’s talk about it. In the mindset of many engineers, ‘art’ is simply another process to joylessly automate and get off our plates, to free humanity’s time for enjoyable pursuits, such as …prompt-based art? At least in Star Trek, a utopian sci-fi future, they did replicators and space travel and knew art was an endgame. Oh, the poor souls who arrive in an empty white room with no interests or motivation left but to optimize. Optimize what? For whom? To what end? Why? As they have no idea (their answer is everything) we will say a prayer for them, if that is the shore in which future human consciousness finds itself trapped.
Of course, this is a dark timeline if you understand the essence of art and motivation for basic creativity, and while (some) engineers marvel at their machine learning play-things (the output certainly feels artificial, so the A in AI is correct) the debate rages between man vs machine and who will own the future. This time it is different, given tools are fully digital and moving forward at accelerated rates. “Gain of function” but for creative work is something of a correct mental model here. But also, diminishing returns are real, (something no one involved wants to even talk about here except perhaps William) just slap some Moore’s law graphs up without understanding just how efficient it already is to build cool creative and get those venture bucks. Anyway, that last few percent of difference between us and machine may contain all the difference. After all, a human and chimp share what is it, 98.8% of their DNA. Turns out, that small percent matters a lot. Judging by AI output it kind of feels similar. What if that last few % away from humanity actually removes the imperfection that makes our creativity special? Ah yes, just figure out a way for your models to factor that in, too. Because the joy is in the final product, not the work involved (some of us of course know that is not the case, and we end up back in the white room).
Meanwhile, we’ve been giving artists fantastic ways to be more efficient with their creative work for decades. Many commenting on “AI” creative have clearly never used existing creative software or technological tools to make anything. It’s devastatingly obvious when you read people’s thoughts if you already create digital art of any sort. The current wave of AI of course hopes to leapfrog software packages and tools and simply work on spitting out final output (audio, video and text files) patterned via existing works. “It’s all been done” at this point, might as well let the machines take the wheel. Our pesky, fleshy humans have done enough.
The whole discussion feels strange to me. Some days, it sounds like a bunch of terminally online people taking a pre-congrats victory lap against humanity itself, as the tech sector does in its manic, mindless way jumping from one trend or sector to the next without much consideration for what’s in their wake. I am certain to have been guilty of this in the past (with things like analytics and business processes, but those things are not really in the same category of what I’m talking about in this post, and should be fed through the machine - no one should be spending their days copy-pasting things to different spreadsheets - full automation is good here).
If you watch science fiction you generally root for the humans. Many now actively seem to root for ‘the Borg’ in creative fields. A simple example is the TikTok and Snapchat filters which productize our likeness in a kind of “look at me” postmodern representation of the digital-self. This is probably the most successful artistic rendering to date (because plenty of end users love them in the narcissistic way many use social). I personally think it makes people less attractive, authentic and worth connecting to. Anything that strips us of our imperfections is missing the point. The AI images, music and video are another. Of note, I actually think the meme uses are fine (it’s entertainment, not art, and that’s something else).
The sad thing here is normal people, humans cursed/gifted with the artistic bug and the dreams that come with such a thing, are caught in the middle. I’ve seen multiple cases of someone saying “AGI is right around the corner, so why should I do X or Y.” This mindset will produce folk who sitting in a perpetual waiting room. When is the tech here? A waiting for Godot scenario of creative pursuits, with their motivation always just a day in the future. They, just like certain engineers here, again miss the point of developing ‘craft’ which is the ultimate goal of any creative. You must choose something and narrow your scope (the Peter Pan story, which is something tech’s perpetual youth wants to run from). You must choose a path and if you don’t start now it doesn’t matter what technology is developed anyway. Everyone may be able to input prompts. But ever fewer will make anything that is beyond a piece of ‘liminal spaces’ creative (quickly created, as quickly forgotten, like a hospital hallway). And note, even in a world where everything could be CGI, people at the top of their game like Christopher Nolan still do things like build physical sets to perfect the illusion of zero gravity in Inception, or crash a plane into a building like in Tenet. These things are memorable. No one scene in an overly-CGI’d flick stands out or is memorable enough to come to mind immediately.
Like everything else in modernity, people want instant results without putting in any sort of effort to earn them. And then they wonder why they’re empty inside, their life the product of an ongoing process to make everything ‘more efficient’ for the sake of efficiency. They listen to podcasts at 2x, guzzle down Soylent, abuse stimulants to speed-run life. They miss some of the best things and important aspects of our humanity are the result of inefficiency, of time, of patience. A day at the beach is inefficient. Love is inefficient. A walk through a city without a map (I know) terribly inefficient. Time spent in nature: inefficient. Yet all these things are the most fun/rewarding if you’re not an if/then statement robot. Generally, the creative process is this way. I suppose you can program some initial inspiration of it into software via tools like randomizers (much better than pure file output - actually might be cool) but what meaning do the results have for you as a creator if you didn’t also make them your own? Some of you might know the answer here. If not, good luck in your journey.
I tend to think the people blindly shouting all day championing “AI” over humans are quite nihilistic in a way they don’t even see. Perhaps they think they’re helping. And in some situations, they are (automated tools for medical diagnostics to detect disease are wonderful, as is helping people understand each other in different languages). But the Silicon Valley blunt instruments of ‘disruption’ and ‘optimization for optimization’s sake’ without really knowing an endgame could lead us (further) down already dark paths we currently sprint blindly, at least when it comes to artistic pursuits. We’re already in a creative dark ages thanks to the music industry being a disaster and Hollywood literally optimizing for dollars and strip-mining our nostalgia. In both these cases, two of the best mediums of expression already have zero incentives from a financial perspective. And we tend to get the future we finance.
Meanwhile, the tech sector, who badly seem to wish to bring back excellence on one hand and champion founders and “10x engineers” also seems oddly anti-human in their pre-congrats back-patting of disrupting creativity on the other. They will have to rectify these two things, which do in fact go together. ChatGPT or any of the image/video/music tools will not save their souls or have the answer here.
End note: I am, of course, not anti-technology for art, in fact I have probably written more original music with software than majority of folk reading this (and it’s all under creative commons, so my work will inevitably influence the machines). But I don’t know that we actually understand what we’re solving for here in many cases. Even airline pilots who fly automated planes go through intense training beforehand (and in cases shortcuts are taken, the results for humans end up being tragic). No one is physically going to die here, but a world where all craft behind art is gone, humanity’s collective mental wellness could suffer a similar fate. Anyone who isn’t cautious here isn’t paying attention.
Excellent essay. Couple of quick thoughts as a creative director ...
1. Creation from AI will all be the same because it’s feeding from the same language/information pool. It will be boring. Much like most of what passes for creative these days. It can’t be startling and remarkable because all it can do is regurgitate what’s already there. (Yes, like most of what passes for creative these days.) It will increase the noise.
2. Because it will increase the noise being able to stand out and be noticed by superseding AI with, you know, human intelligence and creativity, will become more valuable. AI cannot see the future. That’s why we have artists and poets.
3. Engineers and technocrats and middle managers will fall by the wayside as artists and poets come to the fore.
Not before time, right.
People who can make art can and are using AI to make more of it, better, and faster. Yet at the same time, a tsunami of crap has flowed from the people who can't make art since they lack the eye or ear or sensibility. Aesthetic training would seem to be at a higher premium than ever.