Artificial intelligence is blurring the line between machine and artist

A first-place finish at the Colorado State Fair art competition is stirring up debate on whether AI-generated art is really art

Today's expression: Sift through
Explore more: Lesson #508
October 3, 2022:

A first-place finish at the Colorado State Fair art competition is sparking debate in the art community about whether AI-generated art should be considered art. The winning piece at the fair was an AI-generated image, and critics argue that the art was created by a machine, not a person, and so it isn’t art. But AI supporters beg to differ. Plus, learn “sift through.”

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Thirty-nine-year-old Jason Allen of West Pueblo, Colorado, entered an art competition at the Colorado State Fair. When he went to browse the submissions in person, he was surprised to find a first-place ribbon by his entry, “Space Opera Theater.” He got $300 in prize winnings and an international firestorm of criticism on Twitter. That’s because his entry was created with artificial intelligence.

Lesson summary

Hi everyone, I’m Jeff and this is Plain English lesson number 508. JR is the producer and he has uploaded the full and complete lesson to PlainEnglish.com/508.

Coming up today: are images generated with artificial intelligence really art? Prizewinning artist Jason Allen thinks so. The judges in his art competition think so, too. But not everyone agrees. Today, we’ll talk about what AI-generated art really is.

In the second half of the lesson, I’ll show you how to use the English phrasal verb “sift through.” And we have a quote of the week. Let’s get going.

Are AI-generated images art?

This new, technology-driven form of art is controversial among artists and critics. It’s causing people to worry that art is dying, that with only a tiny bit of effort, just anyone could create something that earlier would have required effort, intention, and a human touch.

A French art critic calls it “art’s mortal enemy.” Another worries that painters will have nothing more to do after this new technology becomes popular.

But these critics aren’t talking about artificial intelligence. They were speaking in the late 1800s: they were talking about photography.

Their words were eerily similar to the reaction on social media to Mr. Allen’s AI-generated, prizewinning image.

“We’re watching the death of artistry unfold before our eyes,” one Twitter user wrote. Another said it was “so gross” that Mr. Allen would use artificial intelligence to generate an image and then claim to be an artist.

But Mr. Allen followed all of the rules of the competition and even disclosed exactly how he made his image. He said his image was created “via Midjourney,” an AI generator. The judges of the competition didn’t know that Midjourney was artificial intelligence, but they said Mr. Allen deserves the prize one way or another.

What, exactly, is the controversy? Artists have long used computers to create, edit, and enhance images. After all, Mr. Allen’s painting was submitted to a category for digital art.

The controversy is this: with existing forms of digital art, a person creates an image with the help of a computer, but with artificial intelligence, a computer creates the image. And so critics believe that if a computer creates the image, then the image is not the work of a person. And if it’s not the work of a person, then it can’t be art.

AI supporters, however, beg to differ. They admit that a computer creates the image. But a person programs the computer, a person gives the computer detailed instructions, and a person selects among many potential images. That all requires human judgment, and that’s the art.

To understand their argument, it’s helpful to understand how artificial intelligence can “create” an image or a piece of art. Artificial intelligence, in any application, looks for deep patterns that are not visible to humans (at least not at large scales). Any AI application must be trained to spot patterns and it needs a large volume of inputs to learn from.

So here’s how this works with art. First, all AI generators start with a database of images. This is a large range of paintings, photographs, drawings whatever. So a person decides what images to feed into the system, a person is in charge of deciding what the AI system will learn from.

Next, a person has to catalogue and label the images so that the computer knows what it’s looking at. Next, often, a person will give the program instructions on how to generate an image. Only then can a computer “learn” to create images.

All that is the programming and the preparation. A person, then, tells the computer what to create. It’s common to give a system a set of keywords to follow. Then, the computer creates many, many images that it thinks match those key words. A person then must sift through the massive output of the computer and determine which of the images to save and which to discard. After this final step, the world sees the “AI-generated” image.

So let me ask you: does that sound like just clicking a button, or does that sound like a form of artistry? To me, it sounds like a new form of artistry.

The parallel with photography is instructive here. Yes, to create a photograph, you load a camera with film, point it at something, press a button, and chemically develop the film. But photography is a generally accepted genre of fine arts today because it takes a human’s touch to create a true piece of photographic art. If you doubt that’s true, I invite you to look at a lifetime of my travel pictures. There are many photographs, but there is no art!

AI is its own category

I’ve read some studies that say people generally can’t tell the difference between human-generated images and AI-generated images, and not only that, but people often prefer the AI images to the ones created directly by an artist.

The thing to remember here is that AI-generated art is its own category. Nobody looks at a Monet painting and says, “This isn’t as realistic as a photograph.” And nobody looks at a photograph and says, “I wish I could see the brushstrokes.”

People understand that a photograph and a painting are two different things, two different categories, and you can appreciate both at the same time. I think we’ll get there with AI art. It will be its own category.

The image associated with this lesson was created by the AI generator hotpot.ai. The keywords I fed into the system were “baseball in the Milky Way.” I figured “baseball” and “Milky Way” were common enough terms, but rarely combined. I thought it would create a unique image from commonly-understood terms. Tell me what you think: it’s the main image at PlainEnglish.com/508.

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Expression: Sift through