In the movie “Top Gun: Maverick”, there’s a scene in which Rear Admiral Cain (Ed Harris) is telling Maverick (Tom Cruise) that “soon we will have pilots who don’t need to eat, sleep, p… and disobey orders” and proclaims, “The end is inevitable, Maverick. Your kind is destined for extinction.”
To which Maverick replies, “Maybe so, sir. But not today.” And of course, our hero goes on to save the day, blending his old world flying skills with new world tech.
It seems that with every new technology that comes along there will be the doom-sayers proclaiming, this is the end of … travel agents, GDSes, journalists, artists, whatever … but most do stick around, in some evolved form or another. It is a fact that those who do adapt go on to become better because they know that for all the fancy-mancy tech that comes along, nothing beats the human imagination, creativity and intellect if applied wisely.
The latest species to get into a kerfuffle over what a piece of new tech could do to their livelihoods is artists, designers, illustrators – those who make a living in the creative and graphic arts.
This month, an AI-generated piece of art won in an arts competition at the Colorado State Fair Fine Arts Competition, sparking controversy “about whether art can be generated by a computer, and what, exactly, it means to be an artist”, as reported in this article.
The winning image, “Théâtre D’opéra Spatial”, was created by Jason M. Allen, a game designer, with Midjourney, an artificial intelligence system that can produce detailed images when fed written prompts.
A New York Times art critic, weighing in on the controversy, said we should look it as just another tool, like a pencil, that extends human beings. The question to ask is, he said, is it good art or bad art? “Is it imaginative? Creative? Or does it just come out looking like a typical steam punk thing or a typical NFT art?”
Curious, I signed up for Midjourney and created a couple of images using keyword prompts and I have to confess, the results are startling. More than the results you get, it’s the speed that is alarming – there’s no ways that humans can compete at that level of speed – it literally takes seconds for your art to be generated and it gives you a few options, and you can then choose the effects you like best.
You also learn as you go along how to be more precise with your key word prompts. The more precise you are, the better the results, the closer it gets to how you visualise it. After a while though – because that feed is extremely busy and active with loads of people on it, generating images – everything starts to look the same, much like sunsets on Instagram and dancing dogs on TikTok – all a bit like “typical steam punk thing or typical NFT art”, like the art critic said.
But the commercial applications of Midjourney and of course, DALL-E 2 (the new version is out, and there’s a waitlist to join the beta, which I am on) are immense. This is art production on an industrial scale that no human can compete with.
Where humans can compete is knowing how to use the tool to extend our imagination.
You can imagine graphic novelists creating entire works on this platform. One aspiring artist, who’s been dreaming of creating a graphic novel for years, after testing Midjourney, said, “Mid journey just generated the first render of my original character. I’m quite amazed. I am definitely inspired now.”
And added, “I am thankful AND apprehensive.”
This is what new tech and great ideas should do to us – make us feel frightened but excited at the same time.
Using AI to create works of art is not new. Brian Eno, legendary producer and artist, started talking about using AI to create his music and art back in 2016 and launched a new album called The Ship. At that time, he said that he’s interested in finding out what new technologies can do, primarily because they so often can do something nobody ever thought they could do.
“They were invented to do one thing, but you can be sure they can do something else much better,” said Eno. “Artificial Intelligence is something that I’ve been interested in for quite a long time, I have several friends who are working in that area. And I’m not frightened of it, I’m frightened of the people who currently control it. Like the NSA and so on.”
And he added, “The important caveat is, if you’re using machines and systems and algorithms to generate things, what really matters is what you put in at the beginning, and how you select what comes out at the end.”
So when it comes down to it, it’s human first and human last – the middle part, we can leave to tech. And the better it gets, the better we should get.
Because when it comes down to it, human imagination is our one superpower over machines – and everyone of us has it, not only artists. It’s just up to us whether we use and train that muscle or not.
Featured image: Screenshot Midjourney.