© Photo by MJ S on Unsplash
AI is now at the point where it can write poems and create pictures out of simple prompts. Are we witnessing the end of humanity's artistic expression? Not quite.
If you have been following the news lately, you might have read a story or two about the latest developments in AI technology. For the past few months, several AI-based services have made headlines by being able to create pictures in various styles based on prompts entered by users.
More recently, a certain intelligent chatbot has caused quite the stir by proving itself to be a rather versatile problem-solver. It even shocked quite a few teachers and university professors when it became clear that it is intelligent enough to write entire essays on a wide variety of topics.
But this particular AI is also able to write fiction. This, combined with the recent hype about image generators, has led some to wonder whether artists will be the next people to be replaced by advancements in technology.
Before we move on, I would like to make it clear that to keep this op-ed concise, I will not be discussing the moral issue with these services. Suffice it to say here that in order to be able to "create" their art, most of these AIs rely on huge databases of content created by actual human artists that has been scraped from various places online without the artists' consent.
Many other great creators have already pointed out why this is highly problematic. In this piece, however, I want to focus on the idea that artists are at risk of becoming obsolete as a result of advancements in AI technology. Since I mostly dabble in poetry myself, I will focus on this type of art in particular, but my main arguments can be applied to all art forms.
Can an AI write poetry? Yes, but…
Before we make any hasty judgments, it is perhaps worthwhile to see what we are actually working with. For the purposes of this piece, I headed over to the viral chatbot and asked the AI to write a poem for me. Specifically, the prompt I decided to use was:
Could you write me a short poem about a person pondering the impermanence of human existence and seeing it reflected in a piece of toast?
The first poem it came up with followed a very generic AABB rhyming scheme and was way too long for what I would consider "short." But since this particular AI is able to respond to feedback, I asked it to make the poem even shorter and ditch the rhymes, hoping that it would perhaps come up with something a bit more substantial. What follows now is thus a poem written by the AI:
A slice of bread, in the toaster's glow
Reminds us of the impermanence we know
Once soft, now crisp, a lesson we can learn
Life is short, a toast that quickly burns.
Enjoy each bite, each moment bright
For life is fleeting, a fleeting sight
A slice of toast, not meant to last
Embrace the present, make it your own, hold fast.
As you can see, it couldn't quite bring itself to ditch the rhymes entirely. In fact, only the third and fourth line do not rhyme. There is nothing interesting going on regarding the typography either, it is all very traditional and bland. Form-wise, I'm not really impressed by this, and it shows that the AI has at best a very surface-level idea of what poetry even is.
I also think that it falls short in terms of content. The AI has decided to interpret the impermanence metaphor very literally. There is no ambiguity, no subtlety about any of it – it literally spells out the main idea behind the poem in the first two lines. The famous screenwriting advice show, don't tell holds true for poetry in many ways as well, and it is blatantly disregarded here. It also shoved in a very predictable "carpe diem" type message at the end, which I evidently did not ask for.
I believe that a major marker of great poetry is that it fully realises the creative potential inherent in linguistic expression. The AI is unable to grasp this concept and is reduced to taking the dictionary definition of an idea and reproducing it in a form that most humans would recognise as poetry.
Art is about more than just skills
So much for the current state of AI. But since the technology is constantly improving and has, admittedly, come a very long way in the past decade alone, what if it gets better? What if one day, AIs will be able to write poetry that doesn't resemble something you would find on a poorly made tear-off calendar?
Even in this scenario, I still struggle to see why this would suddenly make all human-produced art obsolete. If Charlie the Robot can write poems, good on them. Let them set up a blog, submit poems for publication in literary magazines, and self-publish a collection or two. I do not see how this would have any effect on what I or any other artists are doing.
Mind you, I'm of course not talking about any economic effects. If publishers suddenly decide that it's more profitable to just have AIs write and illustrate their books, many who depend on this income would suffer greatly. But ultimately, this question also comes down to how our economic system works, which is a whole other animal. For now, I would like to focus on the societal aspects.
The thing is, knowing how to produce art is really just half the story. Much more important than the how is the why. Every artist I know has very strong motivations for everything they do. The urge to create is a very powerful, mysterious force that is indispensable to artistic expression.
The reason why a love poem, for instance, can move us so deeply is because each word is imbued with genuine affection, pain, yearning, and hope – in short: the lived experience of human existence.
No matter how good AI becomes at imitating art, I will never stop creating my own. Because I can't. The need to express ourselves is deeply engrained in us humans. For as long as I live, I will go through emotional experiences, whether they be joyful or miserable, and whatever I create will be a testimony of a life lived curiously, longingly, foolishly, naively, wholeheartedly.
AI may go a long way in many different areas. But art does not end with the advancement of AI. Art has always been, and will remain, linked to the intrinsic nature of humanity itself.