The Difference

The difference between the scientific establishment and the religious establishment is that, though they are both completely human and flawed endeavors, science admits this up front and canonizes multiple mechanisms—logic, the scientific method, welcoming criticism, decentralization, openness to debate—to weed out fraud, corruption, vanity, greed, and other flaws in the hopes that over time, the truth will out. However, religion is beset by all the same toxic horrors of humanity, yet canonizes special pleading, entrenchment, cognitive bias, circular reasoning, intellectual dishonesty, holy warmongering, worshipping ignorance, indistinguishability from fraud (revelation), central authority, sacred cows (or books), and worse and instead pretends to have all the answers from the get-go. Which sounds like more likely to be abused?


AI Art Is Human Art

AI Art allows poets to be visual artists, and illustrators are upset.

A colleague sent me this link:

A few weeks ago, I read this:

A note about the first article: he never hid the fact that he used Midjourney (AI Art tool) but put it in his entry, stating that the artist was “Jason Allen via Midjourney.”

(As an aside, Andy Salerno got a link from Daring Fireball as he poetically shows us how he painted a picture by painting a word picture, using the 4.2 GB model from the open-licensed model and open-source software Stable Diffusion.)

1. Artists have been through this before already, with the invention of the camera.

Yes, the camera took away jobs for portrait painters. Almost no one hires a painter to capture their likeness. But that was already the case before the camera was invented, because it was always expensive and time consuming. Now that photography is so heavily democratized, we just have a lot more portraiture and casual snapshotting, selfies, etc. Capturing someone’s likeness is for the masses.

In addition, photography plays an important role of reference for many artists, and has for almost two centuries, even before the internet. And with the internet, researching ideas and reference material for a new illustration or painting project is fast and easy. Image search results are an embarrassment of riches. In a world overflowing with search results, the creativity of the artist is in (A) knowing what to search for (query string, conceptualization, inspiration, caring about the starting point) (B) using taste to select candidates, and (C) having an opinion about how to combine it creatively (creative composition, cropping).

2. As Julien’s AIGA article noted, the job of an illustrator is not just to wield the brush, but to have a point of view.

If you think that the job of an illustrator is to comply with direct verbal requests without bringing any ideas or suggestions to the table, then you are already not hiring illustrators. Your needs can be, or already are, being served by stock images (photos or illustrations). Now AI art is a third option, which could be thought of like an amped up image search and stock image search combined into one. Depending on how picky you are as a “client,” you can spend more time to get more tailored results by trying more pulls of the Generate button / slot machine lever, or just go with your first or early options if they seem adequate from the get-go. Regardless, knowing what to search for is still its own art form, and you still need to engage with items A, B, C above.

Which brings us to:

3. The human element was ironically ignored in Jason Allen's case.

The angry Luddite illustrators completely dismissed all of the endless very-human work done by Jason Allen. These artists have no experience with these tools or they would have understood the basics:

(A) Jason Allen brought a lot of creativity and experience to the game in terms of knowing how to craft an exceptionally powerful query. He knew what subjects would make an interesting image, what parts of the infinite verbal-visual world to explore.

If succinct poetry, haiku, and novel writing are considered respectable art forms, then crafting textual queries is absolutely an art form. No one bags on J.K. Rowling getting her name on the credits for the Harry Potter films because “all she did was write some words.” Are we accusing her of having aphantasia? She simply captured her mental images in a certain medium.

(B) Jason Allen spent countless hours applying his taste to select candidates to move forward. He prepared three best images out of hundreds and only moved forward with the very best. He iterated and weeded out dozens of duds. He tried fruitless side roads. A large part of the magic of the winning image is that he threw away stacks of losers. We don’t see that in the final image itself, but if you choose not to see that then you are the one lacking imagination.

(C) Using the tools and skills of photography, he completed the final image by composing it, cropping, fixing small things, adjusting exposure. Just like making a print from someone else’s negative, there is still a lot of art and a lot of effort involved here. Again we don’t take seriously the claim that a photographer is not an artist and the machine did all the work. Their passion and effort are obvious to the rest of us, who most of the time take lackluster pictures.

4. New categories.

Fans of animation somehow never accuse Computer Animated Films of not being animation. We understand just how much work goes into making CG animated films. The computer isn’t doing the work.

AI Art does somehow seem sort of qualitatively different to computer animation. I have personally had jobs where I sat next to animators, and we would all consider their work to be obviously difficult and painstaking, indistinguishable from magic. At first blush, typing text into a box and hitting a Generate button sounds like fun, not like work. However, we sort of understand that making an AI illustrated book (imagine the same characters from different angles, participating in the story) or film is still out of reach, at least for now.

I think a lot of AI art enthusiasts (AIrtists?) would welcome a separate category for competitions. In general people assume the possibility of malice, and there will be bad faith actors who put up AI art as if their own original work, but that has just become possible, which is part of what set off everyone’s alarm bells in the last 18-36 months.

To bring this back around, Shrek won the first Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2001, the first year it was available. “Some members and fans have criticized the award, however, saying it is only intended to prevent animated films from having a chance of winning Best Picture.” If you think this new category of award has not brought out detractors, including those who have won it, such as Brad Bird, think again. He has stated publicly that he does not consider animation to be a genre. You don’t make critically-acclaimed, beloved blockbuster films if you think your medium limits your story-telling possibilities. Also a note about other “live-action” films being 90% CGI anyway, at this point.

5. This is the world we live in.

If the world seems concerned about AI Art, it is now partly because the results seem “too good,” almost unfair. This generation of illustrators did not expect to be the one going up against robots and realizing that the results would speak for themselves.

It makes no more sense for illustrators and painters to pine for a world in which cameras do not exist than it does to complain about new AI art tools that did not exist five years ago. Is it unfair to say that those who cannot accept the world as it is deserve to be completely steamrolled by people who can accept change and embrace the new tools? Even if many of these early adopters do not have art degrees! No one is stopping illustrators from trying out the tools, except their own fear-based ideology.

Personally I think all artists should embrace these tools. The tools are free to try. Download them and spend time with them. Use them for inspiration. Use them as a starting place. Use them in the early research phases and get feedback from clients. Get lucky rolling double sixes and then use a great image as reference, and upscale and compose better than a machine can do. Use your taste to bring quality to the game. Create entirely new styles. If AI Art suddenly went from amusing (two or three years ago) to threatening, then what are you going to about it? Join the dark side and figure out how use the tools. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.


Fifteen Years of iPhone

The success of the iPhone and the success of Apple, Inc. were by no means obvious to everyone in January 2007 when Steve Jobs unveiled Apple’s late entrance into the smartphone market with the iPhone, six months before it went on sale in the summer of 2007. Fifteen years later, when Apple’s stock price (split-adjusted) has gone from $3 a share (December 2006) to $170 or $180 a share (December 2021)—and ignoring the reinvestment of dividends this is still about 60x—it just seems inevitable today that iPhone would be a gigantic, unprecedentedly successful product and steamroll entire industries and change the world. But that is historical revisionism.

Even very smart people and herds of wealthy investors are still quite stubborn and generally will not believe something until they have been bludgeoned over the head with obvious facts for so long that it will be too late to profit from the knowledge. Those of us with eyes to see, in 2007 and 2008 and 2009, could tell that iPhone was the harbinger of the future mobile-first, all-screen-smartphone world. Yet, I will record here a reminder that many contemporary tech pundits, industry experts, and cloudy-ball-gazing analysts were just dead wrong about what was unveiled before them, at the time. In other words, there was a time … when investing in Apple was a contrarian, risky investment. Even after the iPhone was announced on stage in 2007! For many years!

Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, laughed at iPhone’s price and pitched cheaper Windows Phone models (which paled in terms of ease of use). RIM CEO Jim Balsillie reportedly let himself be convinced, in otherwise serious company meetings, that Jobs’ iPhone demo was faked, and that the iPhone was therefore not a credible threat to BlackBerry. Ed Colligan, head of Palm, said in December 2006, concerning potential threats from Apple, “We’ve struggled for a few years here, figuring out how to make a decent phone. The PC guys are not going to just, you know, knock this out.” And many smart tech pundits (Tim Bray) and analysts made it clear (even in 2009) that they thought people would resist switching from a hardware keyboard on their smartphones to a touchscreen software keyboard.

It is true that hardware keyboards are better for typing on. However, it is also true that an all-screen phone is worth all of the trade-offs. Furthermore, the world is now smartphone-first, in terms of primary computing device, and therefore high-end experiences on these devices could justify a higher price point. (Ask a teenager today in 2022 about Palm or Research In Motion or BlackBerry or Windows Phone or hardware phone keyboards and they will just look at you like you are speaking a foreign language.)

So the point is that many things are obvious in hindsight, and some things are even kind of sort of obvious looking forward, but not everyone will always correctly predict the future, even given all of the same publicly available information.

In that spirit, cryptocurrency is a dangerous con and is in for a wild, unpleasant ride. Check back here in 2037, if not sooner.

(Update June 28, 2022, from a recent news article: “Across the industry, investors have endured staggering losses. Bitcoin, the most prominent cryptocurrency, was trading Monday near $20,700, far below its November peak of roughly $69,000. Meanwhile, the market value for all cryptocurrencies stood just below $1 trillion; seven months ago, that figure approached $3 trillion.” When the emperor has no clothes and everyone realizes it all at once, it’s just really awkward all around. I’m not sure I expected this to turn around this fast but there is still a long way for it to go down. I’m sure by 2037 the bottom will be much lower! If anyone tells you that no one could have seen this coming, send them a link to this article. Groupthink is common, but knowing which received wisdom to question is rare.)


Magic: Invisible in Real-time

One definition of Magic:

Something you can’t see happening in real-time

Things at a super small or large scale. Work that was done by someone else or a large team. Work that is enjoyed at speed but took years. Geological processes. Evolutionary processes. Painstaking human processes. Articulate or even elegant and simple design, something that feels inevitable or obvious, but hides a lot of complexity or discarded iterations. Magic.