The Ethics of AI

Disclaimer: This blog post was written by a living, breathing writer with years of experience honing their craft. But I’m sure some AI app is going to scrape this blog and attempt to recycle it elsewhere. Eat me. 

In recent months, artificial intelligence (AI) and the ethics of its usage has become a hot topic among professionals and recreational dabblers alike. From Lensa AI generated art to ChatGPT, people have become enamored with plugging in prompts, hitting a button, and instantly pumping out beautiful imagery or entire blog posts in the voice of any content creator you can imagine.

Philosophically speaking, is art created by AI still art? At a more practical level, what are the ethics of using AI to “create” a work of art — especially if it borrows from content across the web — denying artists recognition or payment for their (often unwitting) creative contributions to an AI application.

Taking Shortcuts: The Corporate Obsession with Scalability

One of the magic buzzwords you’ll hear in any corporate environment today is “scalability” — the ability to replicate the output of a process to accommodate a higher demand. As it pertains to visual or written content, it usually means creating more at a faster pace. Some of the barriers to creating more of anything include a lack of qualified personnel, time, and budget. (Pick two: You want it quick, cheap, or done well?)

AI has been posed as a solution to that problem, creating content and imagery quickly and cheaply. However, can we trust the corporate sector to use AI for good and not just to attempt to eliminate jobs that previously required skilled labor?

In theory, advances in technology were supposed to decrease the amount of  monotonous work, giving people more time to create or innovate — or just, you know, enjoy life. In a 2014 article in Scientific American Mind, behavioral scientists Dr. Sendhil Mullainathan and Dr. Eldar Shafir noted that,

“Sacrificing health to put in longer hours takes a toll on us mentally, physically and emotionally, which diminishes performance…Increasing work hours, working people harder, forgoing vacations, and so on are all tunneling responses, as is borrowing at high interest. They ignore the longterm consequences. Psychiatrists report an increasing number of patients who show symptoms of acute stress: “stretched to their limits and beyond, with no margin, no room in their lives for rest, relaxation and reflection.”

Fast forward to 2022. Companies have made record profits, even after two years of a pandemic. Yet, despite these record profits, wages have stagnated, although productivity increased.

You know what else increased in the past several years? A worldwide mental health crisis.

Hence, why so many professionals opted into The Great Resignation or engage in “quiet quitting,” doing only what was required and not above and beyond their job description. The allostatic load of juggling work, family, and ever-shifting goalposts with very few opportunities to unwind has taken a toll on people.

Conveniently, tools that leverage advanced AI technologies have become publicly available and ready for the scaling. AI has come a long way in little more than a decade, since Ken Jennings faced off against the Watson AI on Jeopardy in 2011.

Are the Robots Coming For Your Job?

With full-time creative roles already in short supply and the fact that independent artists of all disciplines aren’t often fairly compensated for their work, the controversy around the Lensa app feels like an even more pointed slap in the face. The app “scrapes” the style of artists from around the web who have posted their imagery online. The app then takes this amalgamation of styles and applies it to a person’s selfies, making them look like an artistic rendering.

Similarly, marketing blogs are doing round-up posts of the best AI apps to create content at scale. Many wordsmiths have long struggled against the public perception that any dingus with a pen (or a keyboard) can be a writer.  If you thought NaNoWriMo made market saturation and competition tough, here comes AI saying, “hold my beer.”

Regardless of your discipline, being a creative before AI was often a thankless job. Now, AI may make it more difficult to ensure artists and writers are fairly paid for their work, even though their intellectual property has been pinched without their knowledge or permission.

With Skynet AI advancing rapidly, artists and creators can’t exactly trust the corporations that develop it and companies that leverage it to act in their best interest. Creators may want to consider finding ways to band together and protect their intellectual property.

The Ethics of AI: Taking the Artist Out of the Art

Recently, there was a quote attributed to Freddie Mercury, the legendary lead singer of rock band Queen who passed away in 1991, that seemed eerily prophetic:

“There will be a time when technology becomes so advanced that we’ll rely on it to make music rather than talent. Music will lose its soul.”

The problem with this quote is that Freddie Mercury never said it. Rather, some anonymous creator slapped those words on an image of the Queen vocalist and it went viral.

The recent fascination with AI certainly makes that statement ring true. The words themselves don’t seem any less relevant, but they carry a lot more weight if you suppose they were said by perhaps one of the greatest voices of all time and not just Joe Schmoe, redditor extraordinaire.

The problem with the internet is that it maximizes the potential to perpetuate bullshit and spin it as fact. As it relates to AI, these applications can scan the web for content and assemble disparate bits of information. While it can quickly turn that information into a cohesive blog post or script, you run the risk of serving up a banquet of bullshit when you don’t have human editors, fact-checkers, and writers to apply the element of creativity and critical thinking to a piece.

Sure, you can produce a reasonable facsimile of a blog post on astrophysics written in the voice of Neil DeGrasse Tyson in under five minutes by programming those prompts into an AI generator. But you won’t be the only one trying to do that. Your competition will likely be trying the same schtick too. Ultimately, it just winds up producing more of the same. Similarly, will public figures appreciate companies cribbing their unique voice and style developed over years to create content designed to promote a product they don’t support?

As with anything that seems too good to be true, there is always an element of the Monkey’s Paw at play. Typically, creatives are often on the losing end of that hairy hand. However, companies that unethically use AI may want to consider that their own AI-generated content may not only run the risk of plagiarism and get deprioritized by Google, but also unwittingly expose proprietary information by leaking data broadly.

Personally, I’m more impressed by the raccoons that made paintings than I am AI apps. I want to know what an adorable trash panda was thinking when making color choices and dipping their little paws into paint and onto the canvas.

Give me human (or animal) creativity any day over a bot.

While AI can be good for inspiration or a thought starter, it’s no substitute for the human touch. Art is the expression of one person’s interpretation of a singular moment in time. And while, as humans, we’re the sum of our individual experiences, AI combines the experiences of many into something that does not allow an individual’s vision — the culmination of their discipline, talent, emotion, and time — to shine through and reward them with a moment of well-deserved recognition or connection with others.

Image by kiquebg from Pixabay

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