Earlier this summer, a piece generated by an AI text-to-image application won a prize in a state fair art, prying open a Pandora’s Box of issues about the encroachment of technology into the domain of human creativity and the nature of art itself. As fascinating as those questions are, the rise of AI-based image tools like Dall-E, Midjourney and Stable Diffusion, which rapidly generate detailed and beautiful images based on text descriptions supplied by the user, pose a much more practical and immediate concern: They could very well hold a shiny, photorealistically-rendered dagger to the throats of hundreds of thousands of commercial artists working in the entertainment, videogame, advertising and publishing industries, according to a number of professionals who have worked with the technology.
How impactful would this be to the global creative economy that runs on spectacular imagery? Think about the 10 minutes of credits at the end of every modern Hollywood blockbuster. 95 percent of those names are people working in the creation of visual imagery like special effects, animation and production design. Same with videogames, where commercial artists hone their skills for years to score plum jobs like concept artist and character designer.
These jobs, along with more traditional tasks like illustration, photography and design, are how most visual artists in today’s economy get paid. The issue even has international economic implications. Some of the more production-oriented art jobs are now offshored to low-wage markets, where they are helping to jumpstart creative industries in places like South Africa and Bangladesh.
Very soon, all that work will be able to be done by non-artists working with powerful AI-based tools capable of generating hundreds of images in every style imaginable in a matter of minutes – tools ostensibly and even earnestly created to empower ordinary people to express their visual creativity. And these tools are evolving rapidly in capabilities.
This isn’t an issue for the far-off dystopian future. Dall-E (a project of the Microsoft
“The progress is exponential,” said Jason Juan, a veteran art director and artist for gaming and entertainment clients including Disney and Warner Bros. “It will allow more people who have solid ideas and clear thoughts to visualize things which were difficult to achieve without years of art training or hiring highly skilled artists. The definition of art will also evolve, since rendering skills might no longer be the most essential.”
Artists have taken notice. Greg Rutkowski is a commercial illustrator in the gaming industry, well-known for his evocative fantasy art paintings for projects like Hasbro’s
“I’m very concerned about it,” said Rutkowski. “As a digital artist, or any artist, in this era, we’re focused on being recognized on the internet. Right now, when you type in my name, you see more work from the AI than work that I have done myself, which is terrifying for me. How long till the AI floods my results and is indistinguishable from my works?”
Juan emphasized that human intervention is still important and necessary to achieve the desired outcomes from any new technology, including AI. “Any new invention will not replace the current industry right away. It is a new medium and it will also grow a new ecosystem which will impact the current industry in a way we might not have expected. But the impact will be very big.”
David Holz, founder of Midjourney, underscored that point in an exclusive interview. “Right now, our professional users are using the platform for concepting. The hardest part of [a commercial art project] is often at the beginning, when the stakeholder doesn’t know what they want and has to see some ideas to react to. Midjourney can help people converge on the idea they want much more quickly, because iterating on those concepts is very laborious.”
Artists Sean Michael Robinson and Carson Grubaugh, who are publishing a comic book called The Abolition of Man using imagery Grubaugh generated using prompts on the Midjourney platform, are more pessimistic.
“The type of work I do, single images and illustrations, that’s already going away because of this,” said Robinson. “Right now, the AI has a little trouble keeping images consistent, so sequential storytelling like comics still needs a lot of human intervention, but that’s likely to change.”
Grubaugh sees entire swaths of the creative workforce evaporating. “Concept artists, character designers, backgrounds, all that stuff is gone. As soon as the creative director realizes they don’t need to pay people to produce that kind of work, it will be like what happened to darkroom techs when Photoshop landed, but on a much larger scale.”
Grubaugh, who teaches art at the college level, says he despairs about the impact on the rising generation. “Honestly, I don’t even know what to tell students now,” he said.
Robinson and Grubaugh recently interviewed renowned fine artist/illustrator Dave McKean, one of the earliest adopters of digital techniques back in the 90s, about this topic. “Why would anyone pay to have an artist design a book cover or album jacket when you can just type in a few words and get what you want?” said McKean. “This will feed an increasingly rapacious marketing department that wants to see 50 comps of everything, and now they can have unlimited comps. The financial imperative of that is inevitable.”
Holz strongly disagrees and believes the platforms will benefit artists, companies and society in the end. “I think that some people will try to cut artists out. They will try to make something similar at a lower cost, and I think they will fail in the market. I think the market will go towards higher quality, more creativity,” he said.
Despite the potential for disruption, even people in the industry who stand to benefit from automating creative work say the issues require legal clarification. “On the business side, we need some clarity around copyright before using AI-generated work instead of work by a human artist,” said Juan. “The problem is, the current copyright law is outdated and is not keeping up with the technology.”
Holz agrees this is a gray area, especially because the data sets used to train Midjourney and other image models deliberately anonymize the sources of the work, and the process for authenticating images and artists is complex and cumbersome. “It would be cool if the images had metadata embedded in them about the copyright holder, but that’s not a thing,” he said.
Rutkowski, who lives and works in Europe, believes that government action may be necessary to protect the interests of artists. “I understand how these programs use artwork and images to build their models, but there should be some protections for living artists, those of us who are still doing work and advancing our careers. It’s more than an ethical issue. It should be regulated by law. It should be our choice.”
Data scientist Daniela Braga sits on the White House Task Force for AI Policy and founded Defined.AI, a company that trains data for cognitive services in human-computer interaction, mostly in applications like call centers and chatbots. She said she had not considered some of the business and ethical issues around this specific application of AI and was alarmed by what she heard.
“They’re training the AI on his work without his consent? I need to bring that up to the White House office,” she said. “If these models have been trained on the styles of living artists without licensing that work, there are copyright implications. There are rules for that. This requires a legislative solution.”
Braga said that regulation may be the only answer, because it is not technically possible to “untrain” AI systems or create a program where artists can opt-out if their work is already part of the data set. “The only way to do it is to eradicate the whole model that was built around nonconsensual data usage,” she explained.
The problem is, the source code to at least one of the platforms is already out in the wild and it will be very difficult to put the toothpaste back in the tube. And even if the narrow issue of compensating living artists is addressed, it won’t solve the larger threat of a simple tool deskilling and demonetizing the entire profession of commercial art and illustration.
Holz doesn’t see it that way. His mission with Midjourney, he says, is to “try to expand the imaginative powers of the human species” and make it possible for more people to visualize ideas from their imagination through art. He also emphasized that he sees Midjourney as a primarily a consumer platform.
OpenAI, the company behind the Dall-E product, who declined to be interviewed for this story, similarly positions itself as working “to ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all of humanity.” Stability.ai, the company developing Stable Diffusion, articulates their mission as “to make state of the art machine learning accessible for people from all over the world.” StabilityAI also declined comment.
“Whenever I hear people talking about ‘democratizing access’ and ‘transparency,’ I get worried,” said Grubaugh. “What that usually means is that the big companies are helping themselves to our data and using it for their benefit.”
The usual arguments in favor of AI are that the systems automate repetitive tasks that humans dislike anyway, like answering the same customer questions over and over again, or checking millions of bags at security checkpoints. In this case, said Robinson, “AI is coming for the fun jobs” – the creatively-rewarding jobs people work and study their whole lives to obtain, and potentially incur six figures worth of student debt to qualify for. And it’s doing it before anyone has a chance to pay attention.
“I see an opportunity to monetize for the creators, through licensing,” said Braga. “But there needs to be political support. Is there an industrial group, an association, some group of artists that can create a proposal and submit it, because this needs to be addressed, maybe state by state if necessary.”
“There’s no doubt that AI will have a great positive impact in the number crunching areas of our lives,” said McKean, “but the more it takes over from the jobs that we do and find meaning in… I think we should not give up that meaning lightly. There needs to be some fight-back.”