With the recent public AI boom, there has been a renewed discussion on whether AI is conscious or can become conscious.
To me, that’s missing the point a bit.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is an opportunity to differentiate between (a) consciousness and (b) the content of consciousness.
CONTENT OF CONSCIOUSNESS
AI is about the content of consciousness, which can – to some extent – be mimicked by machines. AI can produce text, images, music, videos, etc. that look like they could have been made by humans.
Consciousness itself is very different.
Consciousness is what we are. It’s what, to us, any content of experience happens within and as. It’s what forms itself into any and all content of experience
STATISTICS, NOT INTELLIGENCE
In general, I think the name “artificial intelligence” is slightly misleading. It’s overselling it a bit. It’s more accurate to call it predictive text, or predictive music and image generation.
It’s statistics, not intelligence. It’s the product of intelligence, not intelligence itself.
A FEW MORE WORDS
What do I mean by the content of consciousness? Whatever is produced by AI is similar to what’s produced by consciousness, at least consciousness operating through a human self. It’s images, words, sounds, and so on. It’s all content of consciousness. It’s all an experience that comes and goes.
What do I mean by consciousness? To ourselves, we are consciousness. If we “have” consciousness, it means that to ourselves, we ARE conscousness. To us, the world and any experience happen within and as the consciousness we are. (Night dreams and waking life are the same in that way.) Consciousness itself is distinctly different from any particular content of consciousness. Even as, to us, any content of consciousness is consciousness.
What about the AI name? There is nothing wrong with it, and it is sexy and catchy so I understand why people use it. I just think it’s important to include a more accurate and boring description as well, like “predictive text” and “predictive image generation”. It brings it down to earth a bit. It sobers it up.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
There is a bigger picture here.
AI is the product of the inherent intelligence of existence. It’s a product of 13.8 billion years of evolution of the seamless system we call the universe, locally expressed as this living planet and human biology, technology, and civilization. The intelligence of existence is expressed in all we see and know, including AI.
And if the universe itself IS consciousness, then AI is perhaps more similar to us than most of us imagine. Then AI too is a typical content of consciousness (words, images, etc.) happening within and as consciousness.
Image: A sacred bronze sculpture imagined by me and Midjourney earlier this year.
When I started getting into art in my teens, it was quickly clear that what most people like is often quite different from what the creator themselves like. And I am reminded of that again, with the AI images I have had fun creating over the last few weeks.
For instance, I recently posted one series of painted wood toys and another series of sacred sculptures. (See an example from each above.) I personally easily prefer the sculptures. They are far more interesting to me. And although I wouldn’t call the AI images I help generate “art”, I also know that these sculptures – if hand-crafted in real life – would be considered interesting and perhaps even good art. The wood toys, on the other hand, would be more playthings and curiosities and not terribly interesting.
When I post these, the response from others is the reverse. I typically get very little response to the sculptures, and people love the wood toys. On the main Facebook group for sharing Midjurney images, the wood toys got 300+ likes, and the sculptures one (!).
Why is that?
It may be because the wood toy is more relatable. It’s colorful. It’s something you can imagine having yourself. It’s more ordinary and familiar. And it’s easier to take in quickly since it is more colorful and familiar. On a social media feed, it “pops” more.
The sculpture, on the other hand, doesn’t stand out in the same way. It’s dark. It’s not colorful. It’s less familiar. It requires time and attention to take it in.
We see this in the art world too. Classic artworks are curated by experts, and people will go to museums to see them. They see some of the best classic art exactly because it’s curated by experts.
With contemporary art, it’s often a bit different. It’s not curated in the same way. And most people like art that’s relatable, pop, and easy and quick to take in. That’s not necessarily the most amazing art. For that reason, the best contemporary artists are often less known and less popular.
Note: As I have written before, I enjoy exploring AI images right now. It’s fascinating, and I can get out some of the images in my mind that I wouldn’t be able to create by hand. (I used to do art full-time in my teens and early twenties, but life took a different direction, and because of my disability it’s been difficult to take it up again to the extent I would like.)
I also see AI art as a reminder that all art is collective. The author is really humanity or existence as a whole. The AI is fed thousands or millions of images created by thousands or millions of people, and the prompts just get out some of the immense potential stored in the AI. I cannot take much credit for what comes out. All I am doing is coming up with the instructions, refining them, and curating the results.
Existence as a whole is the real creator. As is the case with anything the universe is creating through its local and temporary expressions we call humanity, culture, and individual humans.
A few gold figurines imagined by me and Midjourney. Several of these are imagined as part of shamanic rituals. For instance, the sculls represent our connection with the rest of nature. Our bones and bodies are intimately connected with all life, as is all of us.
Do AI image generators steal people’s art? Not really. It learns from existing images, just like any human artist does. It scans millions of images and learns patterns, and that’s about it. It doesn’t store or steal or use parts of images. (One exception may be if it learns the style of a living artist very well and is able to generate images that are as good as what they make. That’s something laws and the legal system need to catch up with.)
Will AI-generated images replace human artists? It will never replace good artists. It cannot match the best of human-created art, and there will always be a good market for good human art – whether it’s world-class or charming or fascinating in other ways. It may replace some illustrators or less-skilled artists. And in the process, it generates new jobs for people skilled in making AI-generated images.
Who is the artist behind AI images? When I generate images, I am tapping into a vast ocean of (AI) potential to see what comes out of it. I am definitely not the one “creating” the images, although I play a role in coming up with the idea, refining the text prompt, evaluating the outcome, and selecting a few of the many images generated. It’s a partnership between me, the AI, the ones creating and training the AI, and the millions of images it is trained on and the millions of humans creating these images. Just like any art, the real artist is all of us and all of existence.
Will it lead to a new renaissance? I don’t know. The outcome of these kinds of shifts is usually not as terrible as some fear and not as amazing as some hope. That said, yes, it is obviously a kind of revolution. It is already giving a large number of people the possibility to generate images they otherwise would never be able to produce. It will replace some illustrators and stock photographers. It will give work to people skilled in generating AI images. It will inspire many artists to new types of creations. And as anything new that’s dropped into society, it will likely lead to much we cannot easily foresee. (Which is not bad or a problem, that’s just life.)
Is it art? That depends on what you mean by art. I like to say “AI-generated images” for what I dream up with Midjourney, and I mainly consider it fun explorations, similar to exploring dreams.
A few sacred portrait sculptures imagined by me and Midjourney.
Since my teens, I have had the vision to create these kinds of portraits, reflecting or highlighting the sacred in everyone and all life. I initially planned it in oil, but life took a different direction and they turned out digital – at least for now.
A modern art exhibit envisioned by me and Midjourney, as a (kind of) homage to Yayoi Kusama.
I keep noticing a few things about AI-generated images.
THE COOL THINGS EXISTENCE CAN DO
For me, AI-generated images are not so much about me, and much more about humanity as a whole. It’s very clear that these images are based on the collective artistic production of humanity. And that’s a reminder that all art is that way, even if it’s expressed through a local and temporary individual.
When I show the AI images I create with Midjourney, it’s not so much “see the cool things I can do” but “see the cool things we can do”. It’s about the cool things we as a society, humanity, and existence as a whole can do.
Really, it’s about the cool things existence can do through and as its local and temporary expressions we call humanity, culture, society, individuals, and technology.
BLURRED BORDERS BETWEEN AI AND HUMANS
Some assume there is a clear boundary between AI-generated images and human-created images.
Yes, it’s good to make that distinction.
And no, the boundary is not as strong as some like to present it. The AI is created, designed, trained, and modified by humans. It’s also trained on a specific set of human-created images and is dependent on new human-created art to continue to evolve and get new impulses. A human needs to envision the image, design and refine the prompt (which requires some skill and knowledge of visual arts), and select and edit the image. And many use AI images to inspire hand-made images and art.
The AI is created, trained, and modified by humans. It depends on human art to get trained and find metaphorical inspiration. It influences human-created art. The distinction is not as clear as it may first appear, and there is certainly no fixed or strong boundary anywhere between AI-generated images and hand-made images and art.
THE LIMITATIONS OF AI
Any AI that generates images – and other things – will obviously have limitations.
Midjourney (MJ4) can do some things very well, and other things not so much. It is good with faces but has trouble with hands and the number of fingers. It knows some styles very well and is less familiar with other styles. (This goes for both general styles and the style of specific artists.) It’s familiar with some geographical locations and less familiar with others. It is good with individual objects and has trouble producing images with several unique objects with specified relationships. And so on.
These start-up problems will be fixed, but any AI will always have limitations.
There are several misconceptions about AI image generation as it looks to me right now. And that may and will likely change, and what I write obviously reflects my own biases.
One of my biases is that I currently love AI-generated images. I have a decades-long background in both art and programming, and I love anything to do with the future, so I naturally love AI-generated images.
AI IMAGE GENERATION FUN
Some judge it as they would fine art. For me, it’s different.
I don’t see or present it as fine art. I see it more as fun, with a few specific applications.
Personally, I am exploring it because I am drawn to it. It’s fun. It helps me get in touch with different sides of myself and I explore my AI-generated images as I would a dream. (The image above is an example – it’s a water person, someone completely at home in the water which for me mirrors a wish in me to be more at home with my emotions which are watery like an ocean.)
Exploring it also helps me get in touch with my fire and passion, and image creation which I haven’t done much of for several years. It helps me get back into it again.
THE APPLICATIONS OF AI-GENERATED IMAGES
As far as I can tell, AI-generated images have a few specific applications, and I am sure this will become more clear over time and we’ll probably discover applications most of us – including me – are not yet aware of.
What are these applications?
An obvious one is illustrations, especially for blogs and smaller organizations and businesses. Many wouldn’t hire an illustrator for hand-made illustrations since it’s too expensive and not worth it for what it’s for. But we may use AI-generated images instead of public-domain images or nothing at all.
Many use AI-generated images for inspiration and ideas for illustrations, graphic design, and even handmade art. It can give us different ideas and angles than we would come up with on our own. It can expand our horizons.
And, as I wrote in another article, AI-generated images can be a blessing for people with disabilities. Many of us don’t have the energy or possibility to engage in handmade art to any real extent, so this is a good way to spark our interest in or passion for image creation. It’s far more easy to create AI images than spend hours and hours and days and weeks and months on handmade art. It’s far better than nothing, which is often the alternative. (For me, because of the limitations of my disability, the two realistic options are AI art versus nothing, and I make several of the images while horizontal.)
NOT AS GOOD AS WE HOPE, NOT AS BAD AS WE FEAR
Most things turn out not being as good as we (or some of us) hope, and not as bad as we (or some of us) fear. I suspect AI-generated images are like that too.
When photography came on the scene, some feared it would be the end of fine art. After all, why would anyone be interested in a portrait or landscape painting if we could just do a photograph? In reality, the existence of photography sparked an artistic revolution. Artists were free to move in a more abstract direction and it led to the modern art we have seen from impressionism to today.
I suspect something similar may happen through the existence of AI-generated images. At the very least, it will co-exist and inspire handmade art. And it will likely lead to a revolution few if any of us can envision right now.
PROTECTIVE ABOUT PROMPTS
Some folks into AI image generation seem protective about their prompts. One guy wanted to copyright his prompts (!) and I see folks in social media groups for AI images say “don’t even think about asking for prompts, nobody will tell you”.
First, it’s not entirely true that people won’t share them. Many seem more than happy to share their prompts, me included.
Second, the individual element in AI-generated images plays a relatively small role. Yes, I come up with prompts and often spend some time refining them to get an interesting result. But I often get my prompt ideas from others or the general culture and what I know about art history (which happens to be quite a bit since I studied it for years). And the AI that generates the image draws metaphorical inspiration from millions of images created by millions of people from many cultures and times. The AI reflects image creation from the whole of human culture.
Our individual role in AI image creation is quite limited and minuscule compared with the role of human culture as a whole. And for me, that’s one of the beautiful things about AI-generated images. It’s a reminder that culture is collective. What individuals create, whether through handmade art or AI images, reflects our culture as a whole and is colored by our (small) individual contributions.
One thing I love about Midjourney is that we can see the prompts others use. It’s a way for all of us to learn from each other and collectively learn and progress.
This is not exactly a misconception about AI art, just an oddity I find interesting. And I feel the prompt protectivity is a bit misguided for the reasons mentions above.
ONLY AVERAGE DRUMMERS ARE ANGRY AT DRUM MACHINES
In summary, I feel there are several misconceptions about AI-generated images in our culture.
The presence of AI-generated images likely won’t be as bad as some fear, nor as good as others hope.
It will take its place along with handmade art, photography, and other forms of digital image generation.
I see it more as illustrations than fine art, and that’s not at all a problem.
For myself, I use it to explore my inner life and images and I often explore them as I would a dream. I imagine many others do the same whether they are consciously aware of it or not.
AI-generated images are a blessing for many of us with disabilities. It allows us to give form to our imagination in ways we otherwise wouldn’t be able to. (And that goes for many without a disability too.)
And, to end, a quote from a social media group for AI-generated images: Only average drummers are angry at drum machines.
Good artists are not threatened by AI image generation since they can do things far beyond what an AI can do and there will always be a demand for their work.
A collection of water people, an undersea dream by me and Midjourney.
What would this represent in a dream? Being completely at home in the watery world of the emotions?
I love to explore AI images as I would a dream. The AI and I dream up images together, and they resonate with something in me. I can explore them as I would a dream. In this case, these water people seem to evoke a wish in me to be completely at home in the watery world of the emotions. How would it be to be as comfortable with my emotions as these people are in the water?
Update: A few weeks after creating these, I watched Wakanda Forever where an underwater people (the Talokanil) look a lot like these images. Did I see some images from the movie without consciously remembering? Was the AI trained on images from the movie so that when I asked for underwater coral people, the images created came out similar to the movie? Or is it just an example of currents in the culture leading to similar imagery?
A collection of imagined botanical cyanotypes, as a homage to Anna Atkins. These obviously have no botanical value, but retain some of the aesthetics of her amazing photos from the 1840s through the 1860s. Virtually exposed and developed by me and Midjourney.
A few of my space-themed AI explorations from week two of trying Midjourney. Definitely indulging in what my inner 12-year-old would love to see. At a more adult level, I see that my fascination for space exploration and science fiction mirrors my fascination for my inner exploration, for exploring inner space.
I have wanted to explore AI image generation for a while and finally got around to it tonight in front of the fireplace and with the neighboring café playing live jazz.
Here is one of my first experiments with Midjourney. A neo-shaman in Tokyo in the rain with dramatic backlighting. I love that he or she is covered in plants and flowers.
I have seen some discussions about AI-generated images.
CONCERNS ABOUT NEW TECHNOLOGY
Will it replace human artists? Will it make it possible for people to make their own illustrations instead of commissioning photographers and artists? Will it ruin creativity?
Yes, some of that will probably happen.
And it’s also important the remember that these are the type of concerns that predictably come up when new technology comes onto the scene. And each time, the new technology finds its place among everything that has existed before and continues to exist.
When photography came, people said it was the end of painting. What happened was that it caused painting to change. Much of it became more free, imaginative, and abstract, and photography and painting not only co-exist but inspire each other. When CGI became viable, people said it would replace practical effects and even actors. In reality, CGI co-exists with practical effects, and it has even led to new types of jobs for actors in the form of motion capture.
I assume something similar will happen now. Some will use AI for illustrations. Some will continue to hire artists and photographers. AI art will inspire human-created art. Human-created art will continue to inform AI art.
It’s not either-or, it’s both-and. And it may well be that the interplay between AI and human visuals will create a kind of artistic and creative mini-revolution.
It’s also very likely that human-created art will be valued even more. AI art will make it more prestigious.
CULTURE MEANS LEARNING FROM OTHERS
Some say that AI steals people’s work to create new work and make money on it.
I understand that argument and concern.
And I also know that that’s culture. That’s what people have done from the beginning. We learn and take good ideas from each other and do something different with it. That’s how we have a culture in the first place.
The AI is just a bit more comprehensive and effective than any human can be, and also a little less creative.
WHO DO THE IMAGES BELONG TO?
Another question is: who owns the images?
In a practical sense, it’s determined by the AI companies and the law.
And in a larger sense, they come from the collective experience and creativity of humanity and really from the whole of existence. It’s always that way, no matter which particular human or technology it comes through. It’s just a little more obvious with AI images.
Some also criticize AI-generated images because they reflect cultural biases. They learn from our culture so they will inevitably reflect biases in our culture.
For instance, if I don’t specify ethnicity for a portrait, I get a European person. If I ask for a god, even a traditional Hindu god, I get someone absurdly muscular. If I ask for Jesus or his parents, I get Europeans and not middle eastern people. If I ask for a general person, I get someone unusually good-looking in a conventional sense
I would say that’s equally much an upside since it brings cultural biases – picked up by and reflected back to us by the AI – more to the foreground. This leads to awareness and discussions – in the media and among those exploring AI art and the ones they share these reflections and observations with.
A lot of people are more aware of these kinds of cultural biases now because of these AI images.
MY OWN BIAS
I have a background in programming and in art, so I naturally love AI-generated visuals. I see it as a way for people without too much experience to still create amazing images. It’s a way to generate ideas. And it has its place and will co-exist with old-fashioned human skills and creativity.
UPDATE AFTER ONE WEEK
I have explored Midjourney and AI image generation for a week now, and find it seems to fit me well. It’s fun to see images created that I have had in my mind for a while but haven’t created in pencil or oil. It’s also fun to get to know the AI and sometimes be surprised by results better and more interesting than I imagined.
I also find I cannot really take ownership of the images, apart from in the most limited sense. They are generated by the AI, the AI is trained on perhaps millions of images created by others, and it’s really all the local products of the whole of existence – going back to the beginning of the universe and stretching out to the widest extent of the universe (if there is any beginning or edge). It’s always that way, and it’s even more obvious with AI-generated images.
The images are very much co-created by me, Midjourney, innumerable artists whose works have informed the AI, and all of existence.