AI and ethical conundrums

I am one of a group of faculty members who have organised a symposium on «AI and Art» at our university on January 12th. It seemed natural for me; I have always been interested in the ways artists explore new technologies, and push them in ways that perhaps was not intended. This was why I led an initiative that leaned heavily into Virtual and Extended Reality, despite some significant scepsisism from many of the filmmakers who teach at the Norwegian Film School.

New technologies always come with baggage; I don’t believe there is such a thing as a completely neutral technology. There is always a worldview, as set of assumptions and values, and both a cost and a benefit to any technology / tool.

But rarely has this been so evident as in the case of the AI tools that have dominated public discourse in the past 18 or so months. These are tools that can do wonderful things (no link; you can find them easily enough if you haven’t seen them already) but they also come with a significant price attached. We’ve seen the reports of the Kenyan content moderators, exposed to the worst the web has to offer for what amounts to slave wages. We’ve seen the examples of racist and sexist biases build in to the tools.

The biases and prejudices built into the tools are one thing. The other side is it became apparent early on that the companies that have created the AI tools have asserted a right of fair use to copyrighted creations on the web, and copyright holders — including writers, artists, musicians, and more — have launched lawsuits asserting their intellectual property (oh, how I loathe that term) has been stolen.

This means every time, or another artist, uses a generative AI tool like ChatGPT or Midjourney, we are, in fact, using works we do not have to right to in order to create our own.

But is it that simple?

I neither know nor understand all the legal implications of this, but I do know that in the art form I work in — filmmaking — artists have been «stealing» from artists they admire almost for as long as there has been a film industry. Would we have a Kurosawa ouevre to admire if he had not stolen from John Ford? Would we have a Star Wars franchise (that never seems to end) if George Lucas had not stolen from Kurosawa (and many others)?

I know there is a difference between artists taking inspiration from others they admire and a corporation almost mindlessly harvesting artistic works in order to make their machine as slick as possible. But it still gives me pause for thought.

2 thoughts on “AI and ethical conundrums”

  1. Looking forward to hearing more about what comes from the symposium.

    The reference to “stealing” vs building off the work of others always takes me to Kirby Ferguson’s Everything is Remix series, the first 3 episodes still hold up well, but he really landed it for episode 4 on AI

    Personally, two things are at work here, the first is that our intuitions and understandings of what these systems are are actually doing are woefully short- both from the lack of transparency of the systems but even ones that are fully open, the complexity is beyond most of our brain capability. Can we really grok how 150 dimension word vectors operate?

    Also, in the worry of property rights, our experiences and expectations are rooted of familiar practices of copy/grab, change, reuse. Is this really what is happening when AI systems are compiling statistical data patterns of word usage or image characteristics? As a human being, don’t we spend a lifetime training our brains on all we read, hear, see? Are we breaking copyright by viewing say a whole museum display of Impressionism works and then sitting down to paint a scene in the same style– have we copied by emulating? If I listen to a few albums of classic blues, and pick up my guitar to lay out some 12 bar style riffs, have I solen from Muddy Waters?

  2. I hadn’t heard about that series; thanks! I’ll check it out.

    There are a lot of things to grok here, yes. I am less concerned about the legalities as a rule but am also very cognizant of the fact that AI tools make life potentially more difficult for artists. Disney, The Rolling Stones, etc. will be just fine, but your average independent filmmaker, musician, web comic creator, etc. can find that starting a career becomes much more difficult. I really don’t know the ramifications and nor does anyone else yet.

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