Floris Didden, art director at Karakter, an Emmy-award winning studio (Game of Thrones), tells me something similar. “The nature of art-generating AIs doesn’t bother me as much as it seems to bother many artists”, he says. “We all look at each other’s work for inspiration on style, execution, ideas, subjects, etc., and mixing it with our own ideas in some way to hopefully create something that can stand on its own. To my mind the programmer is doing the same thing through the use of the AI they created. I’m not saying there’s no originality but let’s not pretend we don’t massively feed off each other.”

“I don’t think legally speaking your copyright was violated when your art was fed into an AI, but I do think morally they owe you something. If you train an AI to perfectly match a specific artist’s style, I think that obviously violates the artist’s rights somehow, if not their copyright. I just don’t know how to legally enforce that.”

Not everything about AI art is an ethical and copyright battleground, though. For all the discord surrounding their creation (and creations), the machines spitting these images out are themselves mere tools, and in the right hands, tools can be useful.

“There are tremendous benefits to the tech for artists as well, which is part of why it’s such a headache”, Palmer says. “In the same way that a non-artist can now create an image, an artist can too which can be fine-tuned and enhanced through their sensibilities and training. I have had access to Dall-e 2 and it’s fun to see how far you can push it into creating things that don’t have a great 1:1 representation in real life (though it is currently not very good at this). Having it come up with loose compositions, color patterns, lighting, etc can all be very cool for getting inspiration.”

Ortiz is equally enthused—and conflicted—by the practical possibilities for artists. “For me personally, I could see myself utilizing AI generated imagery for initial visual references and inspiration”, she says. “What if I wish to paint an object in a particular light scheme, or require a specific texture in a specific shape? AI would be an invaluable tool to assist me in my artworks! For some artists, AI would be an absolute game-changer, allowing them to have nearly immediate references to further inspire and potentially inform.”

Didden is another who sees AI art as having a practical benefit. “I’m a concept artist and art director and fundamentally I think design is about solving problems, and more specifically the problems of other humans”, he says. “To do this you need to understand the constraints of the project, have ways of generating solutions, and be able to recognize when you hit on the right one. I always thought that as a concept artist you basically just needed problem-solving skills, some way to visualize your solution, and a dose of good taste (whatever that is). So for a designer, I think AI-generated art is going to be just another tool to use.”

Beyond the immediate concerns and potential uses for working artists, there are larger forces at play, and questions—sorry to bring this up on a video game website considering how tiring our scene’s own conversations can be—about the nature of art, and work, and working in art. What does it say about us as a point in human history if we have people working toward, and championing, the use of artificial intelligence to create art? As though it was something that needed to be industrialised, the latest front in a seemingly never-ending struggle between workers and machines?

The reason for this is of course because there are, as there always are in these times, financial considerations at the heart of this movement, some of which are mixing in the same circles as so many other dystopian technological creations—which care only about the tech itself and its possible uses than any ethical, environmental or industrial concerns—like cryptocurrency and NFTs. OpenAI, the lab behind Dall-E, was co-founded by Elon Musk, and already there have been million-dollar sales of NFT artworks generated by artificial intelligence. And that’s just the start.

“Stable Diffusion is planning to make profit out of ‘private’ models for customers, profiting from creating general infrastructure layer, and currently some of their lead developers are utilizing AI generated imagery for sale”, Ortiz says. “Both DALL-E and Midjourney have subscription models as well.”

“Some of these companies’ current and potential profits are directly linked, via obscure data sets, to hundreds and thousands of copyrighted creative works from all kinds of creative professionals”, she adds. “That alone is chilling, but to also have no way to opt out of these tools–especially once your work has been used to train an AI–concerns me as an artist very much. I know the coming legal battles will change the landscape. All I can hope for is that the law will move quickly to protect our creative livelihoods, while simultaneously allowing for these new technologies to grow in a way that is beneficial to us all, not just a handful of companies and developers.”

On the left is an actual Iron Man Funko Pop, while on the right is an AI-generated image of a ‘Funky Pop’, part of a package of prompts currently for sale—alongside obvious Yoda and Darth Vader copies—on PromptBase
On the left is an actual Iron Man Funko Pop, while on the right is an AI-generated image of a ‘Funky Pop’, part of a package of prompts currently for sale—alongside obvious Yoda and Darth Vader copies—on PromptBase
Image: Funko / PromptBase

Most ludicrously, there now exists a marketplace called PromptBase, designed solely to sell “prompts”, which are the inputs used to actually generate AI images. Surprising nobody, this marketplace is already rife with copyrighted works, ranging from pop culture characters to branded sneakers.

At the heart of this entire conundrum looms the false equivalency of even calling what an AI generates “art”. Art is inherently human. Its ability to draw upon and inspire our emotions is perhaps the most defining thing that separates us from other animals. (Sorry, opposable thumbs.) It is defined specifically as “a diverse range of human activity, and resulting product, that involves creative or imaginative talent expressive of technical proficiency, beauty, emotional power, or conceptual ideas”.

A machine is not creating art. A machine, even ones as advanced as the AI we’re talking about here, is crunching data. There is no perspective to AI art, no inspiration, nothing it is trying to communicate. It’s a compilation playlist built by an algorithm, spinning an endless number of remixes and cover songs. The fact so many people are getting bogged down comparing AI art to the creations of human beings, as though the former is doing anything but adhering to an algorithm, is playing right into the hands of those championing this mimicry, because it sets AI creations on a level playing field that they don’t deserve.

Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag perhaps summed it up better than anyone when he said last week “What I don’t like about AI tech is not that it can produce brand new 70s rock hits like ‘Keep On Glowing, You Mad Jewel’ by Fink Ployd, but how it reveals that that kind of derivative, generated goo is what our new tech lords are hoping to feed us in their vision of the future”.

“I think AI art, just like NFTs, is a technology that just amplifies all the shit I hate with being an artist in this feudal capitalist dystopia, where every promising new tool always ends up in the hands of the least imaginative and most exploitative and unscrupulous people.”