In my life, I have seen a cambrian explosion of computational machine capabilities.
Machines (or more specifically programmed algorithms, neural nets, LLMs, GANs, and various forms of software running on various bits of hardware) can accomplish so many functions for which humans were previously required. Predictions about what AI can or can’t do keep proving themselves wrong, as seemingly misguided as confident assertions that man would never achieve heavier than air flight.
Which brings up the issue of AI ‘alignment’ which I can think of as being summarized as the interrelated disciplines that seek to ensure that these tools and capabilities more often serve the cause of human flourishing. And to a certain kind of geek, AI alignment is the issue that trumps any other — getting AI right is an existential question that if our species flubs will result in the possible extinction of human beings.
I’m not a researcher or programmer or even an investor, so my capacity to influence these matters is little to none. Though, I can seek alignment with AI, what is anything I can or should do to bring myself into alignment with possible future arcs bent by new software or hardware capabilities.
To begin with humility, I honestly don’t know what to think on this; I have a distaste for apocalyptic notions of FOOM or (now somewhat out of intellectual fashion) ideas about a singularity, as they seem to be secular religions dealing with what sins or offerings can help us best appease the new gods we imagine we’re birthing. And secular religion seems to be to be a mangled thing. It is perhaps better to say I don’t know what to think about the potential for the creation of smarter than human self improving entity that can quickly think/manipulate circles around every other entity on the planet so I won’t say much.
One safe bet, I do think that every month that goes by I’ll allow more doubt to creep in that any/everything I see on a screen is fake, much as I suspect now that every piece of commercial photography is a cartoon painting with a tenuous relation to the original capture that serves mostly as inspiration/skeletal structure for the fiction rather than an attempt at honest representation. Likewise, every month that goes by I’ll have to assume that any piece of (new) text was machine generated.
Insofar as drawing is about the ordering of pixels in a recognizable and pleasing shape, generative tools are already producing work at the level of junior illustrators.
Insofar as writing is about the creation of a string of words, I think we’re at a point where (lightly edited, perhaps with the right prompting which is an emerging skill in its own right) AI tools are producing at scale mediocre professional writing — with the added benefit (?_ that they are doing so at a scale impossible for human creators and we have no reason to believe that they will not continue to improve.
One thing I’ve been paid fairly well for previously is making up monsters for tabletop RPGs, an intersection of creative writing and game design which is easier to break into than literary fiction certainly, with renumeration that is better than what I ever received from writing prose. Bing -off the shelf- can design monsters stat blocks and all. And Dungeons and Dragons isn’t exactly incredibly esoteric, but it’s also a specific and (formerly special) bit of skill I had to hone that is now machine generate-able. Something like this is happening (or probably will soon) be happening to every field that works with ordering words, lines of code, pixels or other bits of datum.
This freaks out my artist friends. This has freaked me out previously, but not anymore.
Some of this has happened before, mathmatical computation used to be the domain of humans, there was in fact an entire profession referred to as ‘computers’ who were (often female) mathematical workers, solving equations for all manner of things tfor which we now use calculators.
Ted Chiang is probably the best commentator I know about AI. He has two metaphors that help me greatly understand the discourse around AI – one that our fears about AI are really our fears about Capitalism (we wonder if we will be able to ‘align’ a hypothetical god-tier AI, even as we are enmeshed in corporate, political, and economic systems which have -at best- dubious alignment to the goal of human flourishing let alone the flourishing of the other living systems of which we are part and parcel and at worst is horrendously unaligned to the goal of the continual flourishing and eventual expansion of life). He also calls tools like Chat GPT as lossy jpeg of the internet.
Chat GPT is language in (occult, probabilistic) reference to itself. As such, it can produce works of sophistication and beauty at scale. But writing can be, perhaps should be, words in relation to a mystery, that encounter with the numinous other of another human, an artifact, an environment. to a moment, to an other. To be overly reductive, there are two ways to writing a poem about touching grass; one is to refer to language and history and best practices, the other is to notice to hold and refract that experience into words.
If we flatten art making to the creation of ordered stacks or words/pixels in a way that is pleasing meaningful useful to humans, then I think AI eats this. Mediocre, middle of the road with nothing particular to say is already being created at scale -though this was happening even before chatgpt was on the scene. If art making is about larping the great voices of the past, then -again- chatgpt is already producing proximal work at scale — you can with even inexpert level prompting create approximation of Alan Watts quotes. If art making is the flowering of a human entrained with the other, as prismed through their own individuality, then we’ve yet to begun to even begin to produce art at anything like global scale.
David Foster Wallace had an essay about writers being snoops and learning their cues from TV. This has certainly been my case, as if I’m not careful I’ve learned plotting and structure from Anime. If our reference points are the strings of words on the internet, then machined tools will do this faster and probably better (although faster is better when it comes to the majority of for profit writing of our day, which is vast foundaries of clickbait trash ‘read’ -really fracked for advertising dollars- in that particular skimming way of internet reading). If our reference points are ourselves and our weave of relations, our way through the city, the hike up the green hills I’m currently writing in front of (shockingly green given that I live inn the semidesert city of San Diego, right after receiving atypical, record breaking rain). Then we have a chance of saying something novel, something worthy.
Moreover, if one is to make art in this era one must content themselves on the actual nourishment of an artist, that is to say the effects an art making path has on developing a human being. Making art like children do, for the sheer joy of creativity. Even without a universe of restaurants and soylent and meal services, people still cook, and they even do this when cooking is more expensive. They do this because you can to some degree taste the love. They do this because the work of our hands and our minds, the caring work we do helps shape us and shape our relations. But we might not be able to get paid for our home cooking.
Taking again the metaphor of ChatGPT as a lossy jpeg of the internet, even truly creative remixes and reboots eventually grow stale. And in popular culture, a common refrain is to decry the (seemingly endless) series of reboots retcons and references, an auto cannibalistic closed loop alternately sickened or delighted by the taste of itself. Chatgpt, trained on everything that has come before will do reboots and extended fanfiction universes better than anything; I don’t know if chatgpt will be able to write the next paradise lost dreamed up as part of a new mythology but I do think it can probably write (and eventually, animate/score) the next 8 million star wars films, better on average than what most creators have done. There will be little space for the remix mirrors to be commercially viable for creators, so it will be vitally important that we understand our crafts as about self development, about the instinctual human need to create, about taking a stab at saying something novel from a genuine connection with the other that -even if AI can say it better it wasn’t there to sit in the grass, to hear the bird song, to feel the bittersweet essence of experience. Work can be done as it always could be done, for the joy meaning of it. Sucks about the money. But the seeming first drudgery this next wave of linguistic and artistic automation will save us from is the drudgery of writing the next Fast and the Furious movie, the drudgery of writing Kim Possible fan fiction unless that work is in fact not a drudgery, is in fact a joy that meaningfully remakes us and connects us with others.
For the longest time creators had the fact that we have the entire cannon of the past to compare ourselves to and find ourselves most probably wanting. We could redirect our efforts (especially in seeking commercial success) to the now now (which as far as popular culture has gone has been repetitive, redundant). Now, both avenues are closed. AI can, or shortly could I suspect, write proximal Milton as scale. AI can, or shortly can, produce the next Pokemon game. And this may well end up being the merest of their powers, but I’m focused on my particular corner of art making. We can be terrified of this -and hopefully this prompts economic adjustment at scale and a billion micro and individualized scaled adaptations or we can be relieved that our art can be weirder, more wild, more inventive, more meaningful and individualized and more small community organized because the middling work that is the digestion and remix of all the ‘training data’ (the words on the internet) is already being done well.
Turn your inspiration seeking eyes away from the screen, and more towards the particularity of your station, and relations, and your embodied experience.
Find the words and sparks dthat have never been used before, because I do not know how novel AI will end up being but I suspect it is in some ways already better at cleverly reframing cliché.
Understand that a path to paying for your life with your art will get far stranger, as it has always been a strange precarious path and consider finding some other way to pay for your life because there is no need to write novels so you can write your soul without hope or dread.
Sucks that all of this will require massive economic adaptation and reshuffles so many human status games.