Adventures in Imagineering – the AI Backlash

I’ve loved technology for the longest time. I can’t put an exact date to it, but the earliest recollection I have is that I wanted to work with computers when I was in grade nine … that would have been when I was about fifteen? Gosh, that was such a long time ago 😛

I’ve worked in IT for over thirty years now and during that time, trends have come and trends have gone. There are technologies that I worked with that are so old that I still get the occasional job offer for something I hadn’t worked with in over twenty years.

While some might be content to stick to what they know, I’ve always been the one standing at the ocean shore and looking for the next big wave — not that I know how to surf (or even swim), mind you 😛 I just like learning new stuff and experimenting with new things. That’s just how I roll.

So when all the new AI image generation stuff came along, I was thrilled. It was something new to work with. Something that seemed exciting and full of promise. But I hadn’t considered the flip side — that some people might hate these changes.

Sure, I saw artists complain about AI generated images on Reddit, or photographers saying that their images had been used in training the AI models and that they were somehow being ripped off. But I thought this was just people adjusting to things, that it wasn’t a big deal.

Today, I went through an experience which makes me wonder if perhaps there are deeper feelings in the population at large about AI that I hadn’t considered?

I have loved Terry Pratchett‘s writing for almost as long as I’ve loved computers — probably about 30 years. (And yes, there’s a point to this random digression 😛) I bought my first Discworld novel because of Josh Kirby‘s glorious cover art and I’ve made it a point to buy the ones with the great cover art, not the American editions which often have weird abstract art on the cover.

In fact, I love Discworld art so much that I’ve talked to Paul Kidby (who succeeded Josh Kirby as the cover artist) and Terry (and later those running his estate) about doing some sort of mobile app to showcase the great Discworld art and the Discworld itself — mostly because I wanted to combine two of my great loves, computers and the Discworld. Also PTerry, as he was known and as he’ll always remain in my mind, loved technology himself. You just have to see his writing set up to know that he did 😛

PTerry's Desk
PTerry’s Desk

So, when I got to working with AI image generation, one of the first things I tried was to try to generate Discworld images, especially an image of the Discworld, a giant turtle carrying four elephants on its back, who in turn hold up the Discworld and so on …

Great A'Tuin
Great A’Tuin

Something like the above, but better 😛 The above’s something that my AI script generated — one of the few where I could actually get elephants on a turtle with a world on top of that. If you read through some of my other posts, you’ll see other results from my experiments scattered throughout, mostly failures 🙂 (And if you check out Paul Kidby’s site, you’ll see a much, much better version too!)

But what has all this got to do with AI backlash, you ask?

Well, today I got tired of the long series of failures in generating a great Discworld image and decided to do a different Discworld project. I’m currently going through the excellent Fast AI course (highly recommended if you want to learn more about AI and deep learning) and one of the lessons was about identifying cats vs dogs based on an uploaded image. I wanted to do something similar, but with a Discworld bent. Given how much I love Discworld art, I figured why not create an AI model which can identify Discworld artwork by different artists?

So I did that and that project can be found here. I was so very excited about getting this done that I ran straight to one of the online Discworld communities that I’d been a lurker in (I don’t really have much to say, but I do enjoy reading what others post …) and posted all about it. I thought people would be as excited about it as I was. But I was wrong … very, very wrong 😛

The first response I received was a very curt one (at least, it sounded curt in my head) saying that I should perhaps leave art to the professional artists. I was surprised but I thought it was a one-off and responded to them with a comment about how it sounded rather discriminatory. Plus, I really get irritated when people start talking about how only “some” people can do anything 😛

But then a second person came in backing up the first. I still didn’t really understand what was going on. Then somebody mentioned that people were very touchy about AI and that perhaps I was likely to get some harsh comments? (Or something to that effect.)

Now I do realize that I made several mistakes here. One, I had no clue that people were that upset about AI art. I can see why they would be now that I think of it, but I just hadn’t thought it was something which would matter that much to people till now.

The other mistake I made was to talk about my AI art generation efforts before talking about my artist detection model. My guess is that at least some people didn’t even get to the part about the artist detection and immediately started fuming about my gall at trying to create art like a “real” artist 😛

Now I do understand that there are issues with AI image generation and that there are real fears amongst at least some segment of the population that their livelihoods are going to be taken away or that they will somehow become second-class citizens because of AI. I can understand these fears and empathize with them to some extent.

But just because you don’t like something, does it give you the right to go around telling others not to do it?

Silly question?

Of course, people will go around telling others what to do. People are after all … people. That’s one of the things that PTerry writes about all the time and which resonated a lot with me. So I guess I should have been even more understanding?

I don’t know. Sometimes you can understand all the way to being underfoot, with somebody’s foot firmly on your throat 😛 That is the trouble with trying to be reasonable — the other person might not have such compunctions.

But be that as it may, I think I’ve been sort of living in an ivory tower hammering away at my AIs and I wonder if perhaps I’ve not seen the gathering storm clouds? Or am I reading too much into a simple interaction on the Internet?

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