With each new technology the question is asked whether it will make us lazy and lower overall quality. While AI is a shortcut, it’s not the garden path some fear.
As with every new technology, there’s a question of whether it will simply make us lazy. In the mid twentieth century the question was asked about calculators. Later it was asked about word processors. Today people ask if AI is just a shortcut for those who don’t want to do the work. In some cases, it is, but there’s more too and people who don’t see the more may miss the boat.
James L. Cook recently made the following observation (profile accessed Feb 4th, 2024):
I was watching an interview with Noam Chomsky and he was asked about AI software, specifically ChatGPT and its impact on education. He replied that GhatGPT isn't about learning, it's about avoiding learning.
And then the light went on.
Recently I was in a discussion with a peer group about an article written by James Marriot for the Times. He's basically an art school drop out that never spent any real time developing his skill to become an artist. And now he's bitter that he's not successful and that artists with real skill are "Gatekeepers" to his success.
To be honest it was a very entitled rant that demonized people who have worked very hard to hone their craft as elitists and prestige squatters. In his article he welcomes AI image generators because he thinks it levels the playing field between his mediocre efforts and those snobby, gatekeeping artists.
And that's where the connection hit.... (channels Chomsky) AI Image generating isn't about making art. It's about AVOIDING making art. Let the computer do it. I'm too lazy to log the long emotionally wearing hours. I'm too impatient and entitled to listen to masters. I'm too self-absorbed to spend my time laboring over a work that requires me to use sophisticated critical thinking. Let the machine do it.
AI Image generation isn't about making art. It's about AVOIDING MAKING art.
According to his LinkedIn (profile accessed Feb 4th, 2024) he’s an adjunct professor at Utah Tech University and had spent ten years as an artist/animator at Disney. He’s obviously very experienced and knowledgeable when it comes to commercial art. Chomsky is a leader in linguistics and knowledgeable about cognitive science, a field he helped found. The observation that AI can be used to avoid learning is not wrong, but it’s not the whole story. [Note: I am not a subscriber to The Times, so I haven’t read the original article, but my commentary is on the point of view expressed by Cook and others.]
Let’s start with what’s right. Some people are using it as a shortcut. Why should I learn to draw when AI can draw for me? I can tell you that given my poor art skills AI can do in two minutes what it might take me years to learn to do. (Note: I’m not, nor do I want to be, an artist.)
Art is just the field Cook knows. Consider something closer to me. Modern tools can solve differential equations. It took me years of study of high school math (algebra, trigonometry, pre-calc) followed by multiple college semesters of calculus to then learn differential equations. For some basic differential equations (maybe even intermediate ones these days) you can bypass the learning I did and have software solve it for you.
So yes, AI, like other tools, is for “lazy” people who don’t want to do the work. But is that a bad thing? Cook fears a Harrison Bergeron future, but history has shown us quite the opposite is true.
I use power tools so I don’t have to drill or saw by hand. I avoid doing addition by using calculators. In both cases I can do the work, it’s just not the work I want to be doing. I’m capable of higher-value work, other than drilling and adding, so I want to minimize the time doing that low-value work.
The power loom is a tool developed at the end of the eighteenth century which is the poster child for the industrial revolution. It made loom work easier and reduced the skills needed to create textiles. It wasn’t to avoid loom work itself, but to make the production faster and cheaper. It made the products more accessible to more people. This was clearly a good thing for 99.99% of the people (those buying the textiles), although not so good for the skilled textile workers since they now faced competition from lower skilled workers using the power loom.
I’m not suggesting that art is a step, like drilling; art is often the end product. But making it faster and cheaper means more people can have more art. If you look at my blog posts I went from sourcing public domain photos that were kinda, sorta, maybe related to the article, to custom images that better illustrated the point of the story. That’s better for 99.999% of the world (the readers), while maybe being slightly worse for the photographers (although also better for those who create image generation tools).
But there’s more to it. Using modern tools you can solve differential equations as well as I can. But solving differential equations is only part of why a company might hire someone like me. As illustrated by the famous (albeit apocryphal) where to put the x story, it’s knowing the right equation to solve that’s valuable. AI doesn’t do that. Maybe one day it will, but not anytime soon.
My book editor wasn’t hired for her spelling abilities; my software did most of that already. You can draw a straighter line and rounder circle than I can. Computers can do it better than either of us. Disney didn’t hire artists for their round circles and straight lines. While that may have been part of it, they hired artists for their creativity. The ability to make a villain look menacing and evil, but not so much that it overly scares young children. Similarly, the bugs in A Bug’s Life need to look like bugs, but also look cute enough that people would relate to the characters (and buy merchandise).
Those characters used to be drawn by hand. Animation tools automated some of the process. Software automated it even further. Modern tools can better mimic the muscles in the face and body and generate more accurate (where accurate might be comically extreme) images faster. That hasn’t removed the need for animators, but it has changed the nature of their work.
Music legend Dave Grohl famously commented to Delta Sky Magazine,
When I think about kids watching a TV show like American Idol or The Voice , then they think, 'Oh, okay, that's how you become a musician, you stand in line for eight f****** hours with 800 people at a convention centre and then you sing your heart out for someone and then they tell you it's not f****** good enough.' Can you imagine? It's destroying the next generation of musicians! Musicians should go to a yard sale and buy an old f****** drum set and get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in and they'll suck, too. And then they'll f******* start playing and they'll have the best time they've ever had in their lives and then all of a sudden they'll become Nirvana. Because that's exactly what happened with Nirvana. Just a bunch of guys that had some s***** old instruments and they got together and started playing some noisy-a** s***, and they became the biggest band in the world. That can happen again! You don't need a f****** computer or the Internet or The Voice or American Idol.
This is the benefit of all tools. Those of us who need something that’s good enough can now get better and better good enough, like my article images, or a hobby drone, or a small business website, or millions of other products. But this doesn’t mean we don’t need true artists, commercial drone builders, sophisticated website designers, or lots of other experts to do the more advanced work. Over time what’s advanced becomes commoditized while the people move to the more advanced work (or watch their labor rates plummet).
Consider again the images I generated for my blog post. Are they better than what I found online? Yes. Better than what I can draw? Very much yes. Can an experienced artist, drawing by hand or using AI generation, create better images than I can because s/he has more experience capturing the right idea, the right way, in the right image? Yes again.
Maybe people like Marriot will avoid doing the learning and will take the shortcut. They’ll quickly find that work with a low barrier to entry (in this case done by anyone who can invest in a ChatGPT monthly subscription) will be commoditized. Others will see AI just like any other tool and focus on the higher value producing efforts the tool will enable. Those are the ones that come from spending years sucking in your garage.
AI isn’t coming to take your job; it’s coming to change your job. The winners will be the ones who know how to ride that wave while those who lament the wave and refuse to make the most of it will soon get washed away.
It’s critical to learn about corporate culture before you accept a job offer but it can be awkward to raise such questions. Learn what to ask and how to ask it to avoid landing yourself in a bad situation.