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Artificial intelligence will soon have a formidable presence in the arts. DALL-E 2 and Stable Diffusion have demonstrated their ability to generate complex and interesting visual images. There is already AI-generated music, and it will get better. There is even talk of dictating a story into a computer and the software generating a short digital movie.
The question is whether or to what extent such art will catch on, given the diminished role of human creativity. Despite the power of the underlying technologies, these works will have less impact on culture than their advocates believe. Consumers and fans want celebrity packaged with their art — and AI, for all its cleverness, has not yet managed that trick.
Consider music. If Taylor Swift’s or Beyonce’s songs had been made by a software program, with no star at the microphone, would they be nearly as popular? It is no accident that Taylor Swift has more than 227 million Instagram followers — her fans want more than just the music, and that extra something (at least so far) has to be supplied by a living, breathing human being.
In the world of the visual arts, too, collectors are often buying the story as much as the artist. Even the experts have trouble distinguishing a real Kasimir Malevich painting from a fake (he painted abstract black squares on a white background, with a minimum of detail). The same image and physical item, when connected to the actual hand of the artist, is worth millions — but if shown to be a fake, it counts for zero.
It’s possible that AI-generated art will be so good that the world won’t be able to ignore it. Yet even then, its fans will be limited. The music of Monteverdi is pretty incredible, and it attracts millions on YouTube. Nonetheless it is best thought of as a minor genre rather than a competitor to Justin Bieber or Jay-Z. Quality doesn’t have to win out. Chess computers are unambiguously better players than humans, and often more exciting, but games of computers playing each other command far less attention than does a match involving Magnus Carlsen.
There will undoubtedly be many collaborations between AI and human creators, with the humans put forward as the public face of the joint effort. Periodic scandals about authorship will surface (“did he write any of that song?”), just as allegations of cheating with AI have risen to prominence in chess. AI-generated art will attract the most interest when the aesthetic of the creation and the personality of the human accompanist appear to be in sync.
What if a human oversees or “coaches” a bunch of AI creators? Will that appeal to fans? Such processes surely have their limits. Imagine an NBA with human coaches and powerful, spectacular robots, more adept at dunks and three-point shots than the best humans. That could be a niche in some corner of the sports or e-sports world, but it won’t displace Stephen Curry and LeBron James in the affections of the public.
AI creations tend toward the combinatorial and the pastiche, because they are based on previously existing databases of images, sounds and cultural creations. Therefore AI products might have trouble generating the kind of originality that leads to truly spectacular and intense levels of fandom.
Imagine that you took some souped-up future version of GPT-3 and fed it all the world’s texts through the year 1500. Would you expect it to be able to come up with something equally important and original as Shakespeare’s plays, or Newton’s Three Laws? How about Strawberry Fields Forever? Skepticism on this point has hardly been refuted by recent advances, however impressive they may be.
It almost goes without saying that the AI revolution currently underway is impressive. It is likely to have a huge impact in some parts of art world, such as the commercial sphere — consumers are generally not interested in who made any given ad or logo. It either works or it does not, and those conditions favor the machine. AI will also give the world quality (automated) personal assistants and autonomous vehicles, among many other advances.
But when it comes to the arts and culture, which are so much about social salience and celebrity, the machines most decidedly still labor at a disadvantage.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. He is coauthor of “Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World.”
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