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Did AI kill the illustrator star? 

Have you heard of DALL-E? No it isn’t a spoof of Pixar’s WALL-E. Well, if you think of text to speech (take the annoying TikTok voiceover lady who reads your captions aloud for example), there is now text to paint…

Yeah, you can literally write the words “woman, beach, palm tree” and an AI will illustrate, paint or graphic design an image based around these words. So, how good are these images? Well, until recently, images produced through this approach remained somewhat lacking in coherence or detail, although they possessed an undeniable surrealist charm that captured the attention of many serious artists. That’s where DALL-E comes in.

DALL-E is a new model – unveiled this year by tech company Open AI – that can generate remarkably consistent and relevant images from virtually any text prompt. DALL·E 2 can even produce images in specific styles and imitate famous artists rather convincingly, as long as the desired effect is adequately specified in the prompt. A similar tool has been released for free to the public under the name Craiyon (formerly “DALL·E mini”).

Thanks to such tech, in just the past few years, the number of artworks produced by self-described AI artists has dramatically increased. Some of these works have been sold by large auction houses for dizzying prices and have found their way into prestigious curated collections. 

This all means that AI art has recently been embraced by the masses, as image generation technology has become both more effective and easier to use without coding skills. The coming-of-age of AI art raises a number of interesting questions, some of which—such as whether AI art is really art, and if so, to what extent it is really made by AI—are not particularly original. These questions echo similar worries once raised by the invention of photography. By merely pressing a button on a camera, someone without painting skills could suddenly capture a realistic depiction of a scene.

As with any technological change, questions surrounding the existence of the current model arise. Surely, AI art will not replace real life graphic designers, illustrators and painters because, as with any form of AI, there is a human touch that simply cannot be reproduced by tech alone. Instead, we must think how we as IRL artists can utilise such tech to our advantage. In some ways, being able to prompt a generative algorithm with words makes the creative process both easier and more focused. It may reduce the need for the curation of outputs, as one can directly describe one’s vision? 

Any generative algorithm can produce an indefinite number of images, but not all of these will typically be conferred artistic status. The process of curating outputs is very familiar to photographers, some of whom routinely capture hundreds or thousands of shots from which a few, if any, might be carefully selected for display. Unlike painters and sculptors, photographers and AI artists have to deal with an abundance of (digital) objects, whose curation is part and parcel of the artistic process. In AI research at large, the act of “cherry-picking” particularly good outputs is seen as bad scientific practice, a way to misleadingly inflate the perceived performance of a model. When it comes to AI art, however, cherry-picking can be the name of the game. The artist’s intentions and artistic sensibility may be expressed in the very act of promoting specific outputs to the status of artworks. There, that’s a win. 

Another novelty spurred by the recent progress of generative algorithms is the ability to produce images by describing the desired result in natural language. This has come to be known as “prompting,” or guiding the algorithm with text prompts as opposed to sampling random outputs. Consider the illustration accompanying this article: The collage features several images generated by prompting DALL·E 2 with the phrases “an AI image generation algorithm, conceptual art,” “collage with images made by a generative AI model, illustration from Wired magazine,” and “an artist curating artworks produced with an AI algorithm, conceptual art.”

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