Artificial Intelligence is Changing (and Challenging) Art, For Better or Worse

Artificial intelligence can generate impressive artwork, but not without tripping over legal and ethical issues.

Longtime Opus readers know that I’m a big fan of Corridor Digital’s various YouTube videos, especially their reaction videos to visual effects, stunts, animation, etc. But in addition to those videos, they also release videos exploring new technologies. In particular, Corridor Digital co-founder Niko Pueringer is a big fan of artificial intelligence, and has posted several videos exploring the potential of deepfake technology.

But in a recent video (watch above), Pueringer explored the potential of AI art generators like Stable Diffusion and Dreambooth, which generate imagery based on user prompts. In this particular video, Pueringer used these tools to create a fantasy narrative accompanied by some truly vivid art. And arguably the main reason why Pueringer’s art is so vivid and striking is because he told his tools to create it in the style of Greg Rutkowski.

Rutkowski is one of the world’s most well-known and acclaimed fantasy artists. His work has been used in Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, and various video games like Horizon Forbidden West and Lineage. His art has also been used, without his knowledge or permission, to train AI art generators — which raises various ethical and legal questions.

[T]hese open-source programs are built by scraping images from the internet, often without permission and proper attribution to artists. As a result, they are raising tricky questions about ethics and copyright. And artists like Rutkowski have had enough.

According to the website Lexica, which tracks over 10 million images and prompts generated by Stable Diffusion, Rutkowski’s name has been used as a prompt around 93,000 times. Some of the world’s most famous artists, such as Michelangelo, Pablo Picasso, and Leonardo da Vinci, brought up around 2,000 prompts each or less. Rutkowski’s name also features as a prompt thousands of times in the Discord of another text-to-image generator, Midjourney.

Rutkowski was initially surprised but thought it might be a good way to reach new audiences. Then he tried searching for his name to see if a piece he had worked on had been published. The online search brought back work that had his name attached to it but wasn’t his.

“It’s been just a month. What about in a year? I probably won’t be able to find my work out there because [the internet] will be flooded with AI art,” Rutkowski says. “That’s concerning.”

For starters, human artists like Rutkowski risk losing income as AI-generated art enters the market. There’s also the simple ethics of basically making it possible for countless individuals to mimic and rip off a style that an artist has spent years, if not decades, developing and perfecting through their own hard work and dedication. While that may not necessarily be illegal — Can you even copyright an artistic style? — it certainly feels gross and disrespectful. (And some folks aren’t even subtle about it; they just go ahead and shout the quiet part out loud.)

AI-driven tools like Stable Diffusion will likely never truly replace human artists, just like AI-powered text generators will never truly replace human authors and novelists. After all, those tools need to learn their tricks from somebody (he says, cynically), and to date, their results still require human intervention to tweak, perfect, and make them presentable to other humans.

For all of its impressive-ness, AI-generated art seems like yet another example of developers and engineers assuming a “values neutral” stance and racing ahead without pausing to consider the legal and ethical implications of their work. To paraphrase the eminent Dr. Ian Malcolm, they were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should. Or as my friend Seth, who’s a fantastic artist and illustrator, put it:

[W]e know that the introduction of AI doing our jobs won’t introduce greater freedom and liberty. Instead, we’ll just get shoved into increasingly dumb jobs so that we can earn our keep. What even is the point, scientists?

Furthermore, there seems to be an underlying assumption that the rest of the world will eventually just “catch up” and accept said technology, not because it offers any real benefits, but because we really have no other choice: it’s become too ubiquitous to undo. Meanwhile, artists like Rutkowski and my friend Seth risk facing yet another way in which their hard work and talent are trivialized and commodified.