CreateNet, Skynet’s Awkard Cousin, is Upon Us

So …

AI. Artificial Intelligence. Long a staple of science fiction, it’s also long been something of a holy grail for the science community. The depictions have run the gamut but I would say that for the most part, said depictions are rather ominous, and have been since the idea existed. Isaac Asimov writing in I, Robot tackled the morality of the artificial life with his Three Laws of Robotics. After that, it started to evolve (or devolve) into more sinister concepts such as H.A.L. in 2000: A Space Odyssey, or even more sinister ideas shown in The Terminator, or the sinister-est (my blog, I say it’s a word here) concept of humanity’s enemies in The Matrix. There’s a common element in almost every conceptualization of an AI that runs amok, and that’s there was always a pivot point in the story where people (read, scientists) should have left well enough alone, invoking Ian Malcom’s line, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

With this in mind, I’m rolling into AI as related to writing novels.

Muse: Wait. Are you suggesting that AI writing novels and such is going to lead to the end of humanity?

You never know.

Okay, not really.

But to me, it is interesting watching this evolve. It’s not just for writing but spreading across more creative outlets—into procedurally-generated art, for example. Sites such as Midjourney can take a set of criteria and, using a bunch of images on the net, kluge together something … “original.” I would say that a lot of them were, at first, pretty crude, but the programs have made surprising strides in a short period of time. Some of the best ones I’ve seen look like honest-to-God original art. The algorithms are getting better, the refinement is improving.

Except …

The ingestors for these programs (the mechanisms used to obtain the base pieces that are modified and combined) have been pretty indiscriminate and sucked up a lot of copyrighted images. That’s an issue.

It’s come up on author forums and Discord a few times, with some authors looking at this art which may look pretty good and asking about the legality—or wisdom—of using it on their own projects, such as book covers. My stance, for myself and everyone else, has been, “stay the hell away from it,” for several reasons. For one, the legality/copyright of such art is very ill-defined and up in the air right now. Using it could land someone in copyright unpleasantness, leading to weeks or months trying to clean it up, and that’s all time and money taken away from doing something more productive. Some of it is good enough to show up on stock art sites and there was even a flap about a Christopher Paolini (Eragon series) book using an artificially-generated element. But not every author is going have Tor—or, rather, the heft of Tor’s legal department—backing them up. So exercise caution, friends.

On a moral level, using such art is also (highly likely) using someone’s copyrighted work without compensation. Maybe the art generators have the option to only use images marked open for any use under Creative Commons, but I imagine such a limitation would be so restrictive as to be useless. And if it did, would such art itself be copyrighted? It’s a tangle I think best avoided for now. Besides, as an author, do you want someone plagiarizing your work and reselling it under a different name? Do unto others.

Then we have AI writing programs, like ChatGPT, which, in theory, will eventually be able to carry on a conversation (say, on a tech support site) with someone that will be indistinguishable from having a human on the other end. I’ve seen some samples of the conversations and they are … not as bad as I hoped they would be. I’ve also seen some attempts by GPT-3 (kind of the progenitor of ChatGPT) to write fiction novels. I’d qualify the examples I’ve seen as more of summaries or plot outlines. They were coherent, in the sense that they had a fully-developed story arc that incorporated story tropes and cliches. Each example lacked good characterization, descriptive language, or anything I’d call emotional relatablity.

But that’s now. Where will it be in ten years, or even five?

Lest other creatives—say actors and musicians—be sitting over there laughing at creators in print media, the handwriting is on the wall for you too. Music has already been digitized and blended to the point that one can develop completely new instrumental tunes without picking up the first instrument. Just in the last few weeks, there have been several articles about “deep-fake voice apps,” that can render a person’s speech pattern to the point that it is indistinguishable to the casual ear. How much of a leap would it be for someone to record a song without a human in the loop? Just blend Beyonce and Rhainna’s voice patterns to get a new one, right? Deep-fake/photoshopped images have been a thing for a while but it’s moving into film and recordings now. They’re not at all perfect but again, the algorithms are getting better, and where will it be in five years? We’re going to reach a point where someone can be inserted seamlessly into a video where they never were before, and it’s going to be undetectable to the naked eye—and in time, perhaps even to digital inspection.

I’ll date myself by saying this, but Gen-Xers and older may remember a commercial tagline that went, “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” The idea was that the tape quality was so high that the listener wouldn’t be able to tell if it was live or a recording. Ironic, that we’ve actually reached the point that the listener/viewer may not be able to tell if the art was created by a human or a computer.

This technology is barreling ahead at breakneck speed and it makes me nervous. The implications are staggering. I have no doubt it’s going to be used for nefarious purposes, whether for scams, blackmail (“I’ve got this tape of you cheating on your spouse and they won’t be able to tell the difference.”), government control, or a half a dozen other bad things. That’s a hell of a rabbit hole to go down so for now, I am just going to stick to the evolution of CreateNet.

Creative, artistic endeavors—be it in film, music, art, writing, or what have you—have, through human history, depended on two things: the passion and flare of their creators, and the patronage of their supporters. The first is under threat. While the bulk of AI-generated art have seen has been relatively soulless without a human in the loop, that’s just now. It’s come leaps in just a few years, and will continue to do so. Unless you think it is inherently impossible for algorithms to mimic human expression and creativity, we’re looking at a possible future where creative outlets will be, as a matter of course, farmed out to the computers.

Writers have been there before. Long before the terms Pulp Fiction and Grindhouse were associated with Quentin Tarentino, they were terms that applied to cheap, rapidly-produced books and movies, designed to get on the market quickly, and just as quickly be replaced by the next one. Both were criticized for lack of literary or artistic merit, and maybe with just cause. Writers and crew on these projects often labored for pennies, where the idea was just maxing out volume, not quality. Almost feels like we’re back in that mode.

Except this time, the quality might be better. In time, it might be superior.

Muse: I bet that hurt to say.

It did.

The other half of this is the patronage aspect and that, dear reader, is where you come in. While there is no way to know if your favorite authors are generating their work without automated help, I advise you to get out there and support your favorites. Buy their books. Go meet them at live events, shake their hand, and talk to them about their books. It doesn’t have to be financial; post about the ones you like and talk them up. Support them in their endeavors outside the mainstream of entertainment (self-publishing, indy music scene, etc) or make them too invaluable to be replaced.

Don’t kid yourself. The mega-corporations that run everything else, as well entertainment media, would love to cut the creatives out of the loop, assign everything to algorithms, and pocket the net difference. CreateNet is here and I don’t see it going away. In the long run, only the consumer applying their dollar will avoid it swamping the creators.

I know it’s incredibly easy to get books, art, films, media, et al, through other means: used, or even … ahem, sailing the high seas. Times are tight, and everyone’s crunched. But if your favorite artists aren’t supported, they may cease to exist and if that happens, you’ll have one option left: the soulless, bland entertainment of the machine.

So find a way to support your human artists.

Down with CreateNet.

Muse: Don’t worry. I’ll be here with you, whispering ideas and criticisms in your ear, until the very end.

I know … thanks.

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