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A tool or cheating? Authors and artists weigh in on AI

New technologies using generative artificial intelligence — or AI — are shaking up many industries, including publishing and art. Authors and artists are questioning whether it’s a tool or cheating — and whether AI will eliminate their work.

Phoenix artist and teacher’s take

Mixed media artist Marissa Vidrio draws inspiration from familiar places, like her garden.

“I love desert cacti and especially this time of year when everything’s blooming,” she said.

Vidrio’s work highlights her California road trips, “the epitome of my childhood, those velvety hills with grass," and years spent in Norway, “I love bright color. I like to use my hands, I like to get dirty.”

So do Vidrio’s elementary school students at Brett Tarver Leadership Academy in Phoenix. In her art classes, copying often pops up.

“A lot of the kids are like, oh you’re copying me, you’re copying me. I’m like, we’re all copying. You’re copying from me and then from there, you’re putting your own spin on it, you’re adding your own background, you're adding your own ideas,” she said.

When Vidrio’s students want to use a familiar symbol, like Nike’s swoosh, she has to explain trademarks and copyrights. She hasn’t yet discussed AI with her students but it’s coming. In March, the world’s first AI-generated art gallery opened in Amsterdam. 

“We’re going to have to find a way to use it, work with it, live with it,” Vidrio said.

“It is terrifying, it’s exciting, it’s interesting, it's horrible, it’s all these things at once,” said Dan Blank, a marketing expert who helps people share what they create.

"It is terrifying, it’s exciting, it’s interesting, it's horrible, it’s all these things at once." — Dan Blank

Overall, he’s optimistic about AI and said, "Ideally, it gives more people more access to creativity, it encourages creativity,” he said.

AI develops data by relying on human direction and human creations. You tell the technology what you want and it will search images and text that have been scraped from the internet. That means artists who upload their works may unknowingly be training their algorithmic competitors. Using apps like DALL-E 2 and Midjourney, you can provide prompts. For example, an Arizona sunset. You can direct AI to add more purple or less red, include a mountain — or remove one. Some argue it’s similar to using photoshop or grammar check, but Blank thinks this technology is different.

“Because already people worry will their voice matter? They worry is the marketplace too crowded, they worry about it’s so hard to get attention,” he said. “And I think that if they look at this happening at the creative level, both how easy it is for a computer to create things that are actually interesting or actually good, or actually good enough, even if we start at that level, I do worry it’s going to silence people.”

AI as an author?

Online videos promise you can easily produce books using ChatGPT, an AI tool that pulls from billions of books and other online sources created by humans.  

“So essentially we all wrote that,” said Erin E. Adams.

She talked with me while working on developmental edits for her second novel.

“It’s infusing a lot of Haitian culture, folklore, food, there’s a whole food aspect I’m really excited to explore,” Adams said.

Her writing encompasses horror, mystery, fantasy and sci-fi. She’s leery of tools like ChatGPT because it's trained from existing text. It generates words with similar characteristics based on its prior experience. Adams is concerned about writing that's too formulaic.

“I already see it — like stories and novels just getting, for lack of a better word, less and less weird and getting more and more predictable because of things that quote-unquote make readers happy,” she said. “I would argue one of the best parts of writing is when your writing surprises you and I think if we get into too much of the predictive aspects of AI, we’re going to have writing that’s no longer surprising and that makes me really sad.”

"... if we get into too much of the predictive aspects of AI, we're going to have writing that's no longer surprising and that makes me really sad." — Erin E. Adams

She had not used ChatGPT before we talked and, during our interview, I asked it to give me a sentence in Adams’s style. Here’s what came up:

“Her eyes, pools of liquid moonlight, held a universe of secrets, waiting to be unveiled by the daring souls that dared to look.”

“First off, ‘daring’ and ‘dared’, that bothers me, the double repeat because I read everything out loud before I submit it. I would already take the echo out," she said. “It reads like somebody from my MFA class being like, ‘Make this scene how Erin would write it.’”

The Author's Guild, which advocates for authors and copyright protection, has filed comments before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the U.S. Copyright Office, the U.K. Intellectual Property Office, and the World Intellectual Property Organization. On its website, the guild says, "We need to ensure that human creators are compensated, not just for the sake of the creators, but so our books and arts continue to reflect both our real and imagined experiences, open our minds, teach us new ways of thinking, and move us forward as a society, rather than rehash old ideas."

On May 15, the Guild released survey results from more than 1,700 authors. Among the findings:

  • 90% believe authors should be compensated if their work is used to train generative AI technologies.
  • 65% support a collective licensing system that would pay authors a fee for using their work to train AI.
  • 23% reported using generative AI as part of their writing process.

Of those who use AI, nearly half reported using it as a grammar tool, 29% for brainstorming plot ideas and characters, 14% to structure or organize drafts, and 26% for marketing. Approximately, 7% reported using AI to generate the text of their work.
“I don’t think that publishers are going to start generating AI novels to cut out the author or to pay less to authors or any of that,” said Jane Friedman. “But that’s where I’m seeing a lot of fears right now and it’s the sort of fear every time we see progress like this.”

"I don’t think that publishers are going to start generating AI novels to cut out the author or to pay less to authors or any of that." — Jane Friedman

Friedman has been reporting on the publishing industry for more than 20 years. Her newsletter mentioned that HarperCollins, one of the biggest publishing houses, recently announced it’s using AI to produce first drafts of marketing copy, manuscript summaries and metadata for retailers.

“Publishers already rely greatly on authors to make the books successful, because people want to buy books by people they like, people they know, celebrities they’re curious about,” Friedman said. “And they also depend on authors to market and promote.”

But what happens when AI cranks out quality books in hours — or minutes — when humans take months or years? Won’t publishers choose the machine? After all, it is a business. 

“Maybe that’s where the biggest dangers lie,” Friedman said. “I can foresee AI being good enough to execute orders and develop an 80,000 word novel based on a very detailed outline, yeah. Do I think that’s going to ruin authorship and literature? I hesitate to say yes just because everyone’s going to know. Maybe there will be some people who are happy to read those but I don’t think it eliminates the market for human work."

Marissa Vidrio hopes not.

“When I have a show at Five15 Arts or when I have the Sunnyslope studio tour and people photograph my work I say please tag me, please give me credit, and I'll hand them a business card or I’ll give them a  postcard with my social media information,” she said. 

Vidrio recently tried AI to help craft an artist’s statement that explains what she makes and why. 

“I have to change some things, eliminate some things, but I was looking at it and I'm like, oh my god, this is amazing,” she said.

Vidrio doesn’t plan to use AI to generate artwork and said she’d be disappointed to learn an artist she admires used it without telling people.

“I’d be like, that’s a bummer,” she said. “OK. let's find someone new and fresh because there’s always new artists out there."

And always new technology.

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As a senior field correspondent, Christina Estes focuses on stories that impact our economy, your wallet and public policy.