AIs cannot produce art; only humans can

By Marcus Coetzee, 29 August 2023.

This debate arose several times in conversations with friends while researching my article about the future impact of AIs on our society. I believe that everyone will end up using AIs as tools, much like any other disruptive technology that humanity has invented. 

However, I do not believe that AIs can produce art. This assertion applies to all fields of art such as music, fiction, poetry, drawings and sculpture. I struggle to imagine over 180,000 people attending a 10-week exhibition of the art-like outputs of an AI, whereas they happily did that for a recent Banksy exhibition in Glasgow.

An AI’s algorithmic outputs might produce things that look or sound very good, perhaps even be awe-inspiring or life-changing, but this is not art. 

I was glad to learn that AI-produced art-like outputs aren’t eligible for the same copyright protections as art created by humans. This ruling of a federal court in the United States on 18 August 2023 acknowledged the differences in human versus AI creations. 

Some friends have argued that humans do the same as AIs when creating art. They assimilate art styles, copy other artists, and then produce their interpretations based on all their influences. This is a deterministic and reductionist view that humans have no free will or innate creative expression and are simply organic algorithms and sets of components.

Other friends have argued that artists already use computers to create digital art so there is not so much difference between these digital tools and AIs. For example, an artist might use Photoshop to draw something or modify a photo, or music software to mix in certain sounds. I see this as having digital tools – like the writer may use word-processing software instead of a fountain pen and notebook. The work is still the product of a human artist with sophisticated tools and the means to instruct and revise the output of an AI until the intended result is achieved. However, the artist is more focused on the output rather than experiencing the full benefits of the creative process.

One friend mentioned that AIs will only become artists when they can create art that other AIs appreciate. I agree with this. It would of course require AIs to achieve sentience for this to happen.

I suspect this is a philosophical debate that will rage for decades and is only just beginning. 

In the meantime, I will value the art made by humans and appreciate the personal stories, triumphs, suffering and other emotions in their art. I love hearing about the sources of inspiration, often from unrelated sources. One of my favourite artists is Niki McQueen and her art expresses her personal symbolism and exploration of magical realism. She feels that her art draws upon the collective unconscious or the archetypal imagery present in all of us. This is what makes all types of art so fascinating.

With the recent surge in AI usage, it’s good that we start having conversations about the innate value of humans versus increasingly effective AIs. Humans produce art; AIs produce art-like algorithmic outputs. Humanity will be taking a wrong turn if we consider them to be the same.

In pursuit of strategic clarity

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