Does AI threaten the future of human creativity?

by Chris Bertram on May 2, 2023

It is reported that Geoffrey Hinton “the godfather of AI” is leaving Google and has voiced some serious worries about the future of humanity as AI continues to develop. I don’t have anything interesting to say about grey gloop or paperclips or AI robots waging wars, but I have been thinking a bit about the impact of AI on creative work, not limited to the production of student essays. Already we are seeing voice actors replaced by clones of their own voices and professional translators reduced to editing the output of machine translation (almost as much work, but for less money, I’m told). So what happens if AI can produce artworks (or should that be “artworks”?) such as plays, paintings, pseudo-photographs, movie scripts, novels, songs, symphonies that are indistinguishable from human productions and that people consume and enjoy? Well, one effect might be that it becomes even harder for people to earn a living producing artworks for the market than it is now. But that doesn’t mean that human production will disappear. And the reason that it won’t is because our interest in creative work isn’t just about the object of production but about its process and the exercise of our human powers (“life’s prime want”, as somebody once said.)

The invention of photography in or around 1839 may have made possible a more accurate representation of reality and in doing so may have displaced some forms of drawing whose purpose was the utilitarian representation of reality, but it hardly stopped people from painting and drawing and, indeed, gave them a new medium in which to express themselves. AI may be, even is, able to produce something that looks like a good drawing of an object, but it cannot replace the human activity of looking hard at that object and co-ordinating hand and eye to produce my (however pathetic and inadequate) represention of it. AI may be able to produce a song, but it cannot substitute for the experience of writing a song and singing it. So I suspect that even if AI gets very good and produces work indistinguishable from human work, it will not and cannot fully replace human work. It will, perhaps, somewhat devalue the artwork as the object of contemplation and consumption, except insofar as we continue to admire works as the product of specifically human intention and execution (just as we would continue to admire the moves of a talented human footballer even in a world where AI-driven robo-footballers were available). But the artwork as the product of a human process, with a renewed focus on that process as the real activity of doing and making will not cease to exist. The Milton who produced Paradise Lost “as a silkworm produces silk” will continues to write; the Leipzig literary proletarian will not. Indeed there may be more of creative labour, since if AI provides for our basic needs, we’ll have the time available to hunt in the morning and criticize after dinner, as well as drawing, painting, cooking, and writing short stories and songs, just as we have a mind. (That is, unless we are enserfed to spend our time catering to the whims of Jeff and Elon instead.)