Dear readers, before continuing on to this month’s article, please take a moment to consider these updates:
- I now offer on my website electronic versions of all my current books (including the out-of-print Photoshop book).
- For various reasons, I’ve had to scale back my public activities (including some writing assignments and public talks). Among other ways, I hope to compensate for these changes by spending more time working on my next book. Your Patreon support of this blog is more important to me now than ever. If you are not already a supporter, please consider it.
- If you have read my books, please take a moment to rate and review them on Amazon.
Imagine a ‘landscape of human competence,’ having lowlands with labels like ‘arithmetic’ and ‘rote memorization,’ foothills like ‘theorem proving’ and ‘chess playing,’ and high mountain peaks labeled ‘locomotion,’ ‘hand-eye coordination’ and ‘social interaction.’ Advancing computer performance is like water slowly flooding the landscape. A half century ago it began to drown the lowlands, driving out human calculators and record clerks, but leaving most of us dry. Now the flood has reached the foothills, and our outposts there are contemplating retreat. We feel safe on our peaks, but, at the present rate, those too will be submerged within another half century. I propose that we build Arks as that day nears, and adopt a seafaring life!
Almost daily I read (often with a sense of fatalistic bemusement) accounts expressing concern about the “dangers” that artificial intelligence (AI) may pose to photographers, and what “we” should do about it. Let’s be realistic. AI is not going anywhere, and there is little “we” can do, because there is no “we.” By this I mean that the collective of humanity, or even the collective of all photographers, is not, never was, and cannot be a unified entity capable of imposing universal restrictions on itself when such restrictions stand in contrast to economic and political interests, or to freedom of artistic expression.
We cannot stop the tides. The flood is coming. We are in its path. There are no safe harbors. Rather than pile on more hackneyed, unfounded hopefulness or advocate for unattainable scenarios, I suggest that the best advice for those of us alive today—us who are witnessing the onset of catastrophic climate change; us who are on the verge of a rapidly spreading and highly disruptive technological revolution—is this: brace for impact.
What does it mean practically? It means that we must prepare ourselves to live in a world in which AI is a dominant, powerful, and prevalent technology rivaling—in many ways, exceeding—the capacities of human beings. Jared Diamond, after studying what factors were most consequential in the survival or collapse of historic human societies, divided these factors into two categories. In his book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Diamond wrote, “Two types of choices seem to me to have been crucial in tipping the outcomes towards success or failure: long-term planning and willingness to reconsider core values.”
Alas, both long-term planning and reconsidering core values are things that human communities don’t do well. In fact, most communities have established (explicit or implicit) mechanisms intended precisely to prevent such planning and reconsideration as both may potentially threaten the cohesion and power hierarchy of a community. Still, they are things that we as individuals may, to varying degrees, choose to do in their own lives.
I will offer here some thoughts about what coexistence with AI may mean to photographers in terms of long-term planning and core values, conceding that the implications of AI are much broader than just its effect on photographers, and acknowledging from the outset that I believe photographic artists are, all things considered, among the least vulnerable to these effects, at least so far as we can predict them. This is not to say that the transition will not be painful, nor that the decisions we face are easy or obvious. Far from it.
Why are photographic artists among the least vulnerable? For starters, art has long been considered more venerable to its consumers when it expresses the creativity and skill of human beings (often, of a singular human being). A hand-signed painting or print is in almost any venue considered as more valuable than even the finest reproduction made by someone other than the artist. Studies have even shown that people intuitively rate works of art as more beautiful if they believe these works were created by a person rather than by a computer. Also, as photographers we already have a long history of battling the prejudice that our works are just products of machines. Many of our historic greats have already fought at least some of this fight on our behalf, and have already made convincing arguments for the importance of human creativity in photographic art.
Creators in other media have for the most part not been in this position before. Musicians generally have not had to worry about computers composing and performing songs or symphonies on par with, or even exceeding, the quality of human-produced pieces. The same is true of sculptors, painters, writers, movie producers, and others.
How then do we photographers brace for impact? The question for each of us comes down to this: what can I—a human photographer—do that an AI cannot? Within the category of long-term planning, one conclusion (to be sure, not an easy one) must be this: I must be creative and imaginative. AI can produce realistic, beautiful images much faster and much more prolifically than any human and is only likely to get better at it. AI can’t experience, feel, imagine, innovate, venture into realms of the mind beyond strict realism or already-conceived concepts. Therefore, strive to make photographs whose value is not just in their aesthetic appeal or exquisite realism; be expressive of genuine, complex human emotions; be original; don’t rely just on subject matter or on visual impact to do the “heavy lifting”—add something of your own. Strive to relate to your viewers the things you have—and AI can’t have: your inner experiences, the richness and complexity of your personality, your quirks and eccentricities, your rebellious streak, your philosophy, your hard-won life lessons.
Stop making generic work; strive to make work that aligns with the singular person that you are and that nobody else can be, and help your audience understand and appreciate how your work aligns with this unique person. The more complex, deep, interesting, emotional, original, and subjective your inner experience, the less likely an AI is to be able to simulate them. Also, stop imitating and plagiarizing others. Not only is it disrespectful to original creators, but if these imitations become popular, AI can learn and copy their patterns. Don’t make it easy for AI.
If you are a professional photographer in the traditional sense (that is, one who depends on photography for your livelihood), part of your long-term planning must involve reconsidering your revenue streams. It wasn’t too long ago that many stock photographers have suffered grave losses when that market dried up. Many press photographers were fired from their jobs when publications realized they could source acceptable photographs from non-professionals. Don’t wait for it to happen to you. If your livelihood depends on images that AI can produce faster, better, and cheaper, plan to venture into new kinds of photography, perhaps even a different profession.
In terms of reconsidering core values, I propose a change in priorities I have advocated for many years: make it the primary purpose of practicing your art to enrich and magnify the qualities of your own experiences—your own living. This is to say: find and nurture your intrinsic motivation to create art and strive to care less (or not at all) about extrinsic motivations. Practice your work with a mindful attitude, strive for flow, for prolonged immersion in creative work: focus more on maximizing your joy in the process, rather than the outcome, of your work. If merely doing your work rewards you with extraordinary and elevated states of mind, that alone makes it worth doing, regardless of anything that AI (or other people) may or may not do.
Consider also, as many now do, collaborating with AI, rather than fighting against it. Find ways to leverage the technology in your workflow, adding your own creative contribution. Let AI do the “grunt work” it can do better than you, then focus your own attention on qualities of your experience, and your efforts on the creative and expressive aspects of your art.
Finally, be sure to get yourself out of virtual worlds as often as you can and engage with reality as intensely as you can. The risk that AI may put some professional out of business, or the risk that AI may outperform human photographers in contests judged on such trite merits as “which picture is prettier” or “which picture was hardest to make,” is ultimately nothing compared with the risk (now promoted as a solution by some of our wealthiest and most powerful organizations) to confine all human experience to a metaverse: to an illusory existence entirely manufactured and administered by AI, where nothing that may seem human-created is—or can be—human-created. Should humanity get to that point, it’s checkmate: AI Wins.
Beautiful article Guy. Wonderfully written and expressed. I’m currently on a retreat at Stanford Sierra Center, just southwest of Lake Tahoe. The landscape here while definitely the Sierras, is so different than other Sierra landscapes. It’s so beautiful and I feel really blessed to be here. I walk up this road that parallels Glen Alpine Creek towards the Desolation Wilderness and I’m just blown away, by the creek, by the cedars, by everything. AI is just data. It can be blown away. It can’t be brought to its knees by a tree, by a rock wall or even by a friend or mate. That’s how we win, by being open and loving our world, human, animal, plant, everything. Machines are dead. Rocks have more life.
Thanks, Dan! Glad you are enjoying your time in the Sierra. You are absolutely right.
Well said, Guy! =)
Thank you, Matt!
Yeah, remember when television was considered a danger? Then, when the world didn’t end…we invented computers. Snort. There’s always gonna be a better mousetrap, and someone is gonna figure out how to game every system. AI is just the next level. And, like all the other levels before it (and what will come after)…it is a TOOL. If we use it as a tool, it can be of assistance. If we abuse it as a tool, it becomes a murder weapon. Same can be said for a shovel. You can use it to dig a hole, or you can hit someone over the head with it. It is up to us to make the choices.
Thanks, Lori! I’m afraid AI is much more than just a tool. It is a technology that will transform very pervasively the ways we live, work, and create. The people who are sounding the alarm bells are not just boys crying wolf; they are some of the world’s greatest subject matter experts. I think that much of the confusion comes from the characterization of AI as a tool “we” can choose how to use. This is just part of the story. In fact, it is a tool that can operate itself and make its own decisions without human control. The risk of us turning AI into a murder weapon is part of the story (given the power dynamics in the world, this is practically guaranteed to happen), but there is also the risk that a rogue AI may decide to turn itself into a murder weapon.