Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Review — The Digital Aesthete: Human Musings on the Intersection of Art and AI

This compilation of stories examining the intersection of art, creativity, and AI is eye-opening, entertaining, and thought-provoking

The reason that ChatGPT is so popular right now is that, as a large language model, it's fantastic at creating sentences that remind us of what already exists. That's because it's scouring the internet and its millions of terabytes of text, and has learned, for example, that ice cream is described 99% of the time as "sweet" or "cold." AI is kind of like that old saying that a million monkeys at a million typewriters would someday produce Shakespeare, out of sheer probability—it's called the infinite monkey theorem.

But generally speaking, it's never going to default to something truly personal and come up with an idea uniquely brilliant and human, like "the ice cream reminded me of Grandma Betty's pale yellow kitchen, the one she painted while listening to Johnny Mathis after Grandpa left her."

In The Digital Aesthete, we get stories from writers and thinkers across the globe that tackle the thought experiment of how AI like this will affect art, including stories from heavy hitters like Ken Liu, Adrian Tchaikovsky, and Ray Nayler. Whether you use AI in your daily life (like me) or just are intrigued by the news stories you hear more and more about, these pieces pose questions about how AI will change what art really means—and whether we even will want to consume it.

All the stories are worth reading, and they range in tone from sincere to funny to mysterious to heart-wrenching. Here are the top 5 stories that I haven't stopped thinking about since reading them:

Forged by Jane Espenson

I have fallen in love with the main character in this short story—and it's a drone. It's an art forger, and it zooms over land where naive art still exists: art that's been made a human who lives without machine influence. The drone grows rich from his art dealing, takes to smoking cigars (it always has to clean out its parts afterwards, from all the smoke) and takes to hanging fancy tuxedos and ball gowns off its mechanical limbs. The line between art forger and art creator begins to get blurry. What does it mean for an AI to want to maximize human happiness, and how far is too far to ensure art is enjoyed?

Stage Show and Schnauzers by Tina Connolly

A queer detective story set in a theatre that's essentially a locked-room mystery? You had me at hello. Our detective is assisted by her partner, an AI named Gabriel that's housed in an old iPhone. When we think of art, we usually think of dance, painting, sculpting. Is detective-ing an art? Only if we expand the definition to include outside-the-box creative thinking, and then I think a case could definitely be made for it! This story is cozy and cute and definitely made me chuckle a few times. It's also a love letter to drama and the world of the theatre, one of the oldest human arts out there.

Good Stories by Ken Liu

The conceit for this story is simple but fascinating: AI-generated content has been deemed uncopyrightable, but courts have decided that manually edited AI-text can be copyrighted if it shows a minimal amount of human-sourced creativity. Clara, an employee at Good Stories, Inc., is a lowly text smith who changes the occasional verb or two for huge artificial texts. She eventually grows resentful, but learns what people are actually doing with this vast amount of wordsoup. Using a variety of AI tools—not just text for scripts but also AI video and special effects tools—people can create their own interactive movies:

"The AI has a database of tens of thousands of licensed performance profiles of movie stars, cinematographers, composers, auteurs. Feed it a Good Story... and you can turn a 300,000 word epic into an exciting 2-hour film with a plot in the shape of The Hero's Search for Meaning starting Tatiana Samoilova and Kinuyo Tanaka as the leads, with a supporting cast of Idris Elba and Marion Cotillard, shot in the style of Wes Anderson..."

This sounds incredible, but what of the real-life artists? That's the common theme throughout this collection.

A Beautiful War by Fang Zeyu, trans. by Nathan Faries

Some humans were born to be artists, thinking in abstract shapes and colors and the desire to share their vision with the world. These same folks, naturally, don't tend to make the best soldiers. But what if an AI device could make an artist believe he was making art when in reality he was making war? This story explores what happens when you use art as a cover for not creation but destruction.

The Laugh Machine by Auston Habershaw

In a near future, comedians have been replaced by joke bots. It may not seem like it (especially when a comedian is crass or racist), but telling a joke is most definitely a form of art. It's writing with the intent to make someone laugh and appreciate something about the human existence. In The Laugh Machine, we meet a self-aware joke bot that's programmed with antics and comic stylings of 6,573 comedians. He's not great at what he does, but he is thoughtful. His boss is mean to him, shouting, "Listen, robot. People don't like you. You freak them out." Why, then, does he keep using the joke bot? Money, would be my guess. People will do nearly anything to avoid paying artists for their time.

One day, the joke bot notices that a woman keeps returning night after night to listen to his set. He knows this because his friends, search engines, like to gossip and literally cannot resist answering questions. I won't spoil the end, but the woman and the joke bot share a connection that makes you think about the collateral damage of AI-powered writing.

Final thoughts

In one of the stories, a character opines, "People don't like the idea of consuming art made by a machine." I think this is both simultaneously true and false, and the different perspectives in the book help illustrate both points. True, there is something magical about a human's experience giving meaning to the world through art and creation. But at the same time, people today rave about Dall-E-generated art and Midjourney like there's never been anything cooler.  This book made me think about the power of soul-crushing capitalism writ large over countless artistic fields, and how profoundly sad it could end up for the humans who used to be the sole owners of such exertions.

But no matter your take on AI—whether you're a plugged-in believer of its many possibilities or a luddite who thinks it should be banned from all forms of creative expression—there's no denying that it's here to stay. It's up to us how we incorporate it into what we make, and how many boundaries we put around it. As Ken Liu states in his story in The Digital Aesthete, "The world is only bearable because we make up stories about it."

It will all just depend on who or what exactly will be doing the making-up in the future.

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal, NoaF contributor and lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A co-host of Hugo Award-winning podcast Hugo, Girl!, she posts on Instagram as @cestlahaley. She's also a professional copywriter who thinks Chat GPT is fun but always missing a certain something tone-wise that can never be replicated by an AI.