AI is about to become the nuclear bomb of our online world. And we’re not talking about 8 or 9 nations having access to it — we’re talking about anyone with an internet connection. That’s billions of people — terrorists, extremists, greedy autocrats included. Oh and also your ex.
I was having a good day. I was happy, relaxed. Groceries were done, bills were paid, kids were fed. I was about to take a nap. Then my wife sent me a text message — a link to a NYT article about a guy who won an art contest with a piece he created using AI technology, a bot called Midjourney. At the end of the article — which was mostly about how artists were unhappy with the outcome of the contest because it felt like cheating — I was a bit annoyed, but still felt normal. On the one hand I agreed with the artists, on the other, I told myself it’s a story as old as time about new technology disrupting old ways of doing art like photography did to painting, like cinema did to theater. But I’m probably still going to go take my nap.
Millions of jobs killed instantly
I was also pretty intrigued by the tool. It looked cool and I figured I should probably learn how to use it. I’ve spend the past month working on a pitch deck for an animated project and I certainly could use it to create a few mood boards quickly, being myself very limited in my illustrating skills. So I googled Midjourney, scrolled briefly through two YouTube tutorials, and started getting really scared. I decide to postpone my nap. Within 10 minutes — literally 10 minutes — I was ready to type my first prompt for the AI bot to generate my first digital artwork. I entered the following 15 words: star wars like landscape desert of ice with dunes at night atmosphere cinematic dramatic lighting. I clicked enter. 30 seconds later, here’s the image I got:
When it appeared in front of me, here are the exact words that were propelled from my guts to my brain: it’s over. We’re done. Humans have lost. AI has won, and this is an absolutely terrifying thought I have no idea what to do with. My nap is ruined. My day is ruined. My week is ruined. At this point, maybe my whole life and those of my children are ruined.
This tool not only has the capacity to instantly kill millions of jobs across the film, design, publishing, advertising, photography and art industries, but it also showed me for the first time what AI really can do. And it’s not a joke. It’s really scary. Broadly speaking, the way it works is this: the algorithm has scanned gazillions of images on the internet, either by reading the metadata or being told what the image represented, then it extracted visual patterns and is now able to recreate those patterns of colored pixels. A computer can’t just draw a mountain in dramatic lighting for you, it doesn’t know what that means — all it can do is replicate the patterns of the pixels from other photos or artwork that show mountains in dramatic lighting. So if you type Pixar-like or Miyazaki-like or Star Wars-like in the prompt, this shameless tool will recreate the aesthetic invented by these artists, apply it to whatever you’d like (the only rules stated clearly by Midjourney on their guidelines is no gore and no porn) to pump out brand new visuals in about 5 seconds. In a way it’s quite impressive, but it’s also arguably easy when the painful creative work has already been done by humans for thousands of years.
The biggest IP theft of all time
And that’s the viciousness of AI — it can’t be creative without flat-out stealing humans’ creativity. It is intellectual property theft at an unprecedented scale. And anyone who is paying attention can already see the next target: words. Goodbye speech writers, journalists, screenwriters, novelists, translators, marketers, even coders (by the way, the day machines start coding is when they completely take over.) Then let’s go to music: goodbye singers, songwriters, composers. You think performers are in the clear? AI can’t perform a concert… well have you heard of the Metaverse? Connect the dots — nothing is stopping anyone from AI-ing a hit album, generating an avatar who will move more spectacularly than the next Britney Spears dancer-child and Cirque du Soleil combined in a VR concert you will pay hundreds of dollars to see. And AI will do it faster and for cheaper, it will sound great and have no physical limitations because it will steal from all of us artists who actually lose sleep, friends and sweat looking constantly for new ways to inspire our fellow humans.
On the Discord channel where the Midjourney bot is available, you can see everyone’s queries and results. As I scrolled through the endless feed, all of the images produced were more on point, more visually appealing and print- or NFT-ready than the ones before them. One query asked for cats playing basketball on the beach (a fun idea, you’ll have to admit), and honestly even the draft result could have been for sale online within minutes and make thousand of dollars within a month. So what’s the problem? It’s great, it creates cool things and democratizes creativity! Sure, except for the part where millions of people around the world are suddenly out of a job — only because they’ve done it so well so far and an algorithm could steal their work.
Ugh, so what?! Technology has done that to the market since the beginning of time! Well sure… but are we sure we’re all happy with what happened when industrial towns and countries lost all their work to robots and China? Or when downtowns lost all their stores to big box retailers? We’ve all been told it’s okay, that it left our advanced democracies only with “high skilled” jobs, you know the ones that are more brainy than manual, that are high paying, that you need to go to college for. Well, if these are gone too…What do we do then? How do we contribute to our economy and our society? Doesn’t it sound like there’s a wall coming?
AI is not a sci-fi movie anymore. It’s about to be in your towns, your school, your offices, your bedroom. And it is going to impact you. Big fucking time.
We’re giving our intelligence away
This is my problem with VR and AI. We, humans, are real. We, humans, are intelligent. Why are we giving that away to computers? Really what is the point? Improving productivity to increase revenue… but how far do we go? The 20th century, and arguably the middle class, was built mainly on the Fordism principle that workers’ wages needed to be increased so they were able to buy the things they were building on the assembly line. Granted, this is the 21st century, so we can do something else — but I don’t see anyone thinking about this in those terms at the moment. There doesn’t seem to be any long-term philosophical or economic theory about what the humans are currently doing to productivity and what this is going to and has already started to do to our economies and societies. Because all that seems to be happening right now is it’s putting more money in the pockets of fewer people. The wealth gap is becoming absolutely out of control, and I don’t think we need to look any further than here for the roots.
I for one, don’t want to give my intelligence to computers. Sorry, but I don’t know them. They haven’t earned any of it. They sit indoors all day doing absolutely nothing, while I bust my ass trying to find meaning in life, raise my kids, pay my bills, come up with new ideas to make the world a more beautiful, better place, be a good citizen, a good neighbor, a good partner, a good friend. And yet the fact of the matter is, as of today, I’m giving my intelligence away. We all are. We all post on the internet. We all post our creations, our words, our photos, our art for anyone to see. And AI bots can scan all of that, because they literally have nothing better to do but steal our hard work, in total impunity, and soon our jobs.
If we’re already concerned about millions of people not believing what they see, wait until they can actually see whatever they decide to believe.
Nuclear power in the hand of a 10 year old
Now, the job destruction is only one part of it. There’s also the part where creativity and innovation dies if decision makers decide to all rely on AI to save on development costs and “guarantee” success — because the bots will run in circles, finding only inspiration in things humans have created in the past. But let’s be honest, there’s probably enough there to last us a couple hundred years.
And of course, there’s the other part, the one we all should be absolutely terrified of. The one where a tool like this can generate in 10 seconds a photo of your ex naked in a motel room with your best friend, or of your political opponent shaking hands with Putin in Moscow, or of you at the scene of a crime 10 miles from your home. Of course, we all know this is possible, in theory. We’ve seen the Tom Cruise deep fake on TikTok. We’re familiar with Photoshop and all. But do we know how close we are to having it available to anyone today? I for sure didn’t, until I tried this thing for myself.
I asked Midjourney to create a photo of me shaking hands with the Dalai Lama in Tokyo. I’ve never been to Tokyo. I’ve never met the Dalai Lama. My webcam is off. I didn’t upload my photo (although the tool does offer the option of using a photo as an inspiration, so I technically could have) but there are public photos of me on the internet, even if most of my social accounts are private. Let’s look at what happened.
- I typed photo of matthieu silberstein shaking hands with the dalai lama in Tokyo 50mm ar — 3:2 (I gave simple specifics like focal length and ratio to make sure it looked like a photo). The bot generates these 4 previews. I could pick one to ask the bot to enhance it.
2. Because I know what I look like, I select the one in the upper left corner. 10 seconds later, this is what I got.
3. Sure, it’s not perfect but boy this picture made me cringe. Google my name to see the photos of me available on the Internet... I have the option to ask for another enhancement. I do it. At this point, we need to see how far this goes. 10 more seconds:
4. The Dalai Lama got better but me, I’m entirely gone. I’m not one to speculate, but it certainly felt like a moderator in the Discord room intervened and told the algorithm to ignore my name from the prompt. You’ll make your own judgement, but as far as I’m concerned, one thing is certain: the algorithm was 100% getting there.
If a moderator intervened, that’s good… but we know how far moderators can go once you unleash something on the world wide web (see: Facebook). Also, this took me less than a minute. This is without uploading a photo of myself or spending a lot of time polishing my query. This is on a supervised channel on a public social media platform. The bottom line is the technology can do it and a 10 year old can control it.
If you still have doubts, let’s look at some pictures other users generated on the Discord channel using a public figure in the prompt (which is apparently still okay as Midjourney simply says in their guidelines they forbid “offensive images of celebrities or public figures. We’re working on defining this further.” In the meantime, have at it!)
AI must be regulated, like nuclear weapons, and it needs to happen NOW. That’s the political side of things. As for the ethical, we as the human race really must ask ourselves why we’re giving away our reality and our intelligence to machines. Is it to improve productivity? If so, to what end? Is it to see what we can do when we push technology to the edge, just for the science of it? If so, are we okay with the consequences? Or is it just for a few people to make billions of dollars and millions of people to lose their jobs, privacy and eventually, their freedom?
Just as at the end of any episode of “John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight,” the question with these big issues that feel completely out of our control is, “What can we do at our level?” This happened to me yesterday, so I don’t have a whole lot of ideas at the moment, but here are a few that came up in the past 24 hours:
- If you buy art, make sure it was made by a human.
- If you see a photo on social media, make sure you look up the source and you trust it.
- If your company needs a graphic designer or a visual artist, hire a human.
- Stop posting pictures of yourself and your art on the internet without setting the highest privacy settings. Or stop altogether, that works too!
- Vote for people who understand the danger this technology poses to the world of information, to privacy, freedom and to the concept of democracy.
AI is not a sci-fi concept anymore. It’s about to be in your towns, your school, your offices, your bedroom. And it is going to impact you. Big fucking time.