AI - creativity means never having to make things yourself, says room full of Important Men

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton January 24, 2024
Here lies a conference sketch from a supposed debate about AI and creativity

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In calendar-year three of the new AI era – the one kickstarted by the launch of ChatGPT et al – a debate entitled ‘Gen-AI: Boon or Bane for Creativity?’ sounded promising. Would independent artists and large organizations explore both sides of a movement that has given us ‘prompt engineers’, examining the upsides and the downsides? 

Nope. The ‘bane’ part of the question was not even discussed in the 45-minute Davos session, at least not in relation to creativity. Chairing a half-empty forum that was eighty percent dominated by powerful middle-aged men – mostly from mega-rich US media conglomerates – Fast Company Editor-in-Chief Brendan Vaughan set the tone from the get-go by saying:

So, generative AI has the potential to augment creativity and lead to previously unimaginable forms of creative expression. That’s kind of been the topic since ChatGPT dropped. It started before that, but you know, that really was kind of the watershed moment that has dominated the conversation ever since. So, I'd love to just sort of get into that.

Setting aside the obvious point that “previously unimaginable” was applied to works generated by pre-trained transformer models – what the session gave us was a group of four Important Men agreeing that everything is great, with a handful of concerns about intellectual property and licensing deals between billion-dollar corporations. 

Plus, one fitfully interesting artist. But debate? Insert ‘cry with laughter’ emoji here. Well, Mr Kind-of-sort-of-you-know Vaughan, might I suggest that if you want to argue about whether something is good or bad, you invite people capable of challenging your opening statement? After all, that was kind-of-sort-of-you-know the point. Or is this where we are now as a species: a group of wealthy Important Men debating levels of BRILLIANT in a half-empty room, backed by Big Money in a ski resort? 

So, just what are these “previously unimaginable” levels of creativity that AI can unleash on a world that is clearly over the previously imaginable kind? For some reason, CEO of YouTube, Neal Mohan, was given free rein by his inquisitor to market a bunch of new apps and services – because when does poor, $1.8 trillion Alphabet ever get the chance to do that? In the course of a completely unchallenged spiel, he said:

Imagine a tool where you can go as an artist, give it a text prompt saying, ‘Give me a chorus that's in the style of this artist with this type of melody and beat’. And it’s created right there! Something that they might have had to go back and forth on, maybe for weeks, with an actual chorus, you know, or an instrument set or what have you [!].

So, it's like a supercharger for their creativity. What artists tell me every single time is like, ‘Wow, I can create music that, a week ago, I wouldn't have even thought was humanly possible!’

That’s right, Neal. Up until now it just wasn’t humanly possible for an artist to make music exactly like someone else’s, unless they could play an instrument and had, perhaps, listened to a record or something. But he didn’t stop there:

Another one, which we just released in beta form, is called Dream Screen. So, if you're a creator, you might just say to YouTube, ‘Hey YouTube! Give me a video with a dragon flying through Broadway in Manhattan!’ [Holy previously unimaginable!]

From a creator’s perspective that would probably have taken days’ or weeks’ worth of work to actually create it, and now it's happening instantaneously! So, they can take that video to the next level of creativity!

Because creativity means never having to make anything yourself, it seems. The next level! 

Famously, the one thing that has always bothered creative people – driven them into an incoherent, dribbling rage, in fact – is actually making things. If only Picasso, Virginia Woolf, or Charles and Ray Eames had just been able to shout, “Show me a chair!” or ‘Paint me a picture about the futility of war!” or “Write me a novel about the crashing, evanescent waves of experience!” at their laptop, they could have done something more useful with their time. Like run a cloud company with stock options! 

Yes, if only Woolf had had a Google account, she might never have drowned herself in the River Ouse, and could have spent many happy years bellowing, “Show me Thomas Hardy being punched in the face!” and giggling like a schoolgirl. Because, finally someone has said it: the entire history of fine art, low art, poetry, literature, drama, cinema, fashion design, architecture, and more, was just centuries of meaningless drudgery. 

At last, we can be freed of the tyranny of Actually Doing Stuff, by shouting ‘Hey Bot!’ at some pixels and waiting for something that is almost, but not quite, exactly like something that has been made before to be delivered to us – for nothing! Well, OK, for a paid subscription to OpenAI, or someone. (Don’t pay artists anymore, pay Sam Altman! Because if you can’t trust him, who can you trust? Just ask his old board!)

A bot can write that 

What made this idiotic conversation even more frustrating was its frequent focus on journalism, with apparent agreement among the speakers that many stories can now simply be farmed off to bots so that the Important Men can focus on ones that might win them a Pulitzer Prize. But on the evidence of this discussion, at least, we can assume that that prize will stay safely locked in a cupboard. 

Almar Latour, CEO of Dow Jones & Company and Publisher of the Wall Street Journal, said:

In terms of the trade-off of doing away with the boring work, a lot of our headlines are already automated, and a lot of simple stories are already automated – earning stories and such are often directly connected to computers in trading houses. That has not taken away jobs, or from journalism. It has actually allowed journalists to focus on investigative work.

Perish the thought that a reporter from the Wall Street Journal might want to investigate a company’s earnings! And remember, the combined investigative power of Fast Company and the WSJ couldn’t find a single person – on Earth – to speak to the ‘bane’ part of AI, merely to exciting levels of ‘boon’. They couldn’t even investigate their own premise!

(As for the “boring” task of writing headlines, I’m the guy who came up with ‘Britannia waives the rules’, and I will defend that to the death.)

But I digress. Latour continued:

I’m really optimistic about [AI]. Also connecting with consumers, readers, and users in new ways. That's going to be very, very important, but I think it will proliferate and deepen the connection that we have with the public at large at a time when trust is really low. I think we can find new ways to be trusted.

Because, apparently, the old ones no longer work, for reasons that were left unexamined at this point by the crack investigative team, despite the subject being an open door – flapping in a gale of absent investigation, in fact. Then Latour made a better point:

AI as a tool can be exhilarating for journalism, in the area of research. If the central function of high-quality journalism is to reveal malfeasance in society, then we are already seeing examples where research can be done at a level that just simply couldn't be done before – processing large datasets. 

A recent example in the research arm of Dow Jones was a human trafficking organization that was unveiled. It had a front, a fake website that looked like an HR website. But because our researchers could go to massive datasets and compare those to the data that was on the fake website, we could tell that this was run by human traffickers. So, value-add research is probably going to be one of the biggest advantages.

Excellent news, which recognizes that AI is much more than just generative tools in the cloud.

So, what did the panel’s resident artist have to say? Krista Kim, of Krista Kim Studio – founder of the Techism movement and Vogue Singapore’s Metaverse editor – said:

I believe there will be a convergence between AI, spatial computing or Metaverse, and blockchain. And what really excites me is how AI is going to break down all communication barriers. You know, we're talking in different languages, and we can communicate with each other no matter where we are in the world. 

I think that is an amazing possibility. Not only between human beings, but between species. You know, let's talk about talking to plants! The technology exists now: we can talk to plants, we can talk to minerals, we can talk to animals, whale species, dolphins. So how can we do that to those? Well, there are actual scientists who are developing this using AI.

Imagine: actual scientists! She then made an interesting point:

Then, of course, you can think about the possibilities of integrating expertise, all kinds of expertise. You have incredible AI brands of experts in different fields all over the world. 

So, if you want to create a new project and you're a neuroscientist, you want to create an exciting art project, you can consult with an AI artist expert and say, ‘How can we do this project together?’ And then also bring sustainability into the whole concept. 

The idea of integrating expertise with information that's at your fingertips at the highest level is incredibly important for the future – and for creating solutions for the future as well.

Fair enough.

‘The Creator’

So, what is the small speck of bane in the eye of creatives, as opposed to the huge plank of boon that is smacking them in the face and screaming “Opportunity!”? Inevitably, in the context of this particular Davos discussion, it was largely to do with intellectual property – which for YouTube, the WSJ, and Fast Company is code for ‘money’.

As well as being a part-time jazz pianist, Darren Tang is Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). He said:

When the Wall Street Journal creates new articles using AI, is that capable of corporate protection? When someone enters a prompt saying, ‘Write a new album where Frank Sinatra sings The Beatles songbook’ is using those catalogues without permission from the copyright owners fair? 

What's happening in the world right now is that there's a lot of fragmentation, you've got different parts dealing with these IP issues in different ways. 

Let me give you one very concrete example. The US has said that if you use AI to generate content – I'm simplifying a little bit – we will not give you corporate [protection] for that because it's not you that is creating it. It's not you doing it, it’s the AI. It goes to a black box. And in the EU and the US that's not capable of corporate protection. 

But in China and in South Korea, courts are beginning to give corporate protection for that. Recently in the Beijing court, a creator was given corporate protection for AI-prompted artwork on the basis that he was a prompt engineer.

Then he added:

I think we're too early to try to harmonize. But what we can do as WIPO, as a UN agency, is to be a global platform to bring all these actors, not just governments and regulators, but people like all of you in this room in artistic businesses, to come and talk and share best practices.

We probably will need some form of regulatory convergence or some kind of interoperability. I think that's where the world is headed.

My take

A fascinating, if frequently depressing, discussion. Over the course of 45 minutes, however, a key problem revealed itself: the likes of the WSJ, YouTube, and other media giants see a future of reaching licensing deals with OpenAI et al as the way forward in resolving disputes with AI companies. A future of giant liaising with giant, but never questioning, assumptions. Even for a second.

But what about the little guy, struggling to make sense of a new world in which the very notion of creativity is being redefined as something that AIs do for us, rather than we do for them, or for each other? Alas, among the chilly peaks of Davos, nobody gives a damn about the little guy. It’s just big bucks talking to big bucks. About big bucks.

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