Art Isn’t Easy, But It Must Be Human, Right?

Like most writers (I think) I have way more ideas than I can handle, meaning that promising concepts often languish for years while I work on other things. You always think there will be time to go back and develop the good ones, but that might not be true. The sudden explosion in art generated by artificial intelligence makes me think a future I dreamed up years ago is here now, for better or worse.

The idea I had was that a group of computer scientists had built a super computer that, when fed with enough examples of a particular kind of art, could then produce the “perfect” example of whatever it had been fed. The computer, at the time the story would have started, had already written a best-selling mystery novel and created some impressive visual art, too. For its next project it would take on music, leading the cranky main character to show the world that music was a human endeavor that machines could never match. I actually started this story a couple times, but it never got very far.

If I were to try and finish it now it would become more historical fiction that sci-fi, as AI art is really getting its moment in the sun. I’d seen some people on Twitter playing around with various programs where you give it a text prompt and it produces a picture. Some of them were kind of neat, others were horrifically creepy in an unintentional way. It all seemed like a lark until somebody took one to a state fair.

A guy named Jason Allen submitted an artwork called “Théâtre D’opéra Spatial,” which, from the presentation of it in this New York Times article, looks like something from a sci-fi or fantasy cover from the 1970s or 1980s. That’s no criticism – it’s pretty cool and I could see it prompting some interesting stories.

Allen submitted the work in the Colorado State Fair’s art competition, specifically in a category for “artistic practice that uses digital technology as part of the creative or presentation process.” The “digital technology” in this case is an AI program/website called Midjourney. It and similar setups work this way:

Apps like DALL-E 2 and Midjourney are built by scraping millions of images from the open web, then teaching algorithms to recognize patterns and relationships in those images and generate new ones in the same style. That means that artists who upload their works to the internet may be unwittingly helping to train their algorithmic competitors.

In other words, a user like Allen feeds text inputs into Midjourney, which then comes up with an image attempting to match the prompt. The process itself sounds like it could be excruciating, tweaking terms one word at a time to see what impact it might have on the final process (as someone who does that with legal search terms every day, I sympathize).

As an experiment, I found a freebie one of these to play around with. I fed it “Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion” and got back these:

Pretty nifty, huh?

All of this would have had the air of a neat experiment or side story, had Allen and his work not won the category (and the $300 that went with it). For what it’s worth, I think Allen is clearly right that he didn’t break any rules. They apparently didn’t define “digital technology” to exclude AI or to only include tools wielded by humans on art they created, so good on him for exploiting the loophole.

But that isn’t the real question. The issue that has people upset about Allen’s win is whether his AI-generated painting is really “art” at all and what it means for human artists. The objections seem to break down along two lines.

The first is, well, that machines just can’t make art or, rather, “art” made by machines lacks something that human-made art does. As someone who at least tries to make art, of the written and aural variety, I’d like to think there’s something to this. On the other hand, as someone who makes electronic music specifically, I’m well aware of the history of musicians (and others) panicking at the onset of some new technological advance. British session musicians in the 1960s were initially super pissed at the Mellotron, one of my favorite instruments, because it was going to put them out of work. It didn’t, of course, because Mellotron strings or flutes or voices never sound quite real, which is part of its charm. Sequencers and drum machines, too, got similar hate for not being “real,” which ignores the fact that what makes them interesting is that they don’t sound “real” in the first place.

But in those examples there’s still a human being pushing the buttons, doing the work. But isn’t that what Allen did? He apparently tried numerous strings of search terms before getting images he liked, tweaking them as he went along. Is that so different than finding a synth patch you like, then using the tools of the synth to shape and sculpt it into something unique and personal? It’s not as if Allen sat down, had a conversation with the AI about what he was looking for, and the AI went away and created. All is doing was responding to prompts Allen gave it which is, for practical purposes, all any artistic medium does.

 The second objection feels more immediately justified, but doesn’t quite hold up under close scrutiny. As I said earlier, these AI image generators work by “scraping” millions of images already on the internet and using them as grist for the images the AI generates. This, to some, sounds a little like machines stealing the work of real human artists. Admittedly, I’d be pissed off if I found out some AI writing thing had scraped some of my stories as fuel for its work. But is that gut reaction reasonable?

After all, what are artists if not meat machines that absorb as influences the works of those who came before them? There’s even a well-known saying to the effect that “good artists copy, great artists steal,” although who said it is a mystery (I heard it from Zappa first, I think). Granted, a computer algorithm can absorb a lot more data than a human brain can in a lifetime, but does that make a difference? We’re hashing that out in the legal realm with regards to the Fourth Amendment and whether computers doing what police would never have the time to do themselves raises questions about the constitutionality of searches. Is the difference between Allen feeding the AI prompts and sitting down with a human artist and saying “here’s the kind of stuff I like, can you do one in that style?” one of kind or degree?

Which is where, I think, humans have it all over machines. As slick as any AI is, all it can do is what people have programmed it to do. A machine has yet to wake up one day and decide “I’m going to paint a flower.” I’m not sure they ever will, although I’m not sure I’d bet against it. There’s something to be said for humanity for having the creative urge in the first place.

Ultimately, this issue is one more in the long line of humans worrying about becoming obsolete. Machines and computers do more and more of our jobs. They’re getting to be a bigger part of law enforcement. And now they’re coming for the arts. It was probably inevitable. It’s worth shifting, then, to wondering not whether AI can make art, but whether it can appreciate it. Show a group of humans the same painting or movie or play for them the same song and you’re likely to have numerous reactions to it. Maybe it’s the reaction, not the creation, that is indelibly human?

Weekly Watch: The Most Dangerous Animal of All

One of my favorite David Fincher movies (of which there are several) is Zodiac. What makes it work so well isn’t that it “solves” one of the most infamous cold cases in American history, but that it compellingly portrays how the obsession with trying to solve something that might not be solvable can ruin a person’s life. In the end, it becomes less a triumph of perseverance and grit than a pathetic throwing away of a life’s potential.

The four-episode documentary series The Most Dangerous Animal of All, adapted from a book of the same name, is an interesting companion piece to Zodiac, although I’d hesitate to call it perfect.

It’s about Gary Stewart, who was adopted as an infant into a loving family. For decades, he struggled with questions of his real identity and what it meant to be abandoned by his birth parents, so he started working to track them down. He found his birth mother easily enough and through her learned that his father was a guy named Earl Van Best, Jr.

Best was a bad dude at the time he met Stewart’s mother. And by “met” I really mean kidnapped, raped, and abused. He was 27 years old at the time, she was only 14. Their “love affair” even made headlines, allowing Stewart to get not just a feel for the circumstances of his birth but pictures and even some in-court film of his father when he was eventually caught, convicted, and sentenced for his crimes.

All that was bad enough, but then Stewart, armed with a mugshot of his father, saw a documentary on the Zodiac killer and that iconic drawing of the suspect:

Stewart realized it looked a lot like his father. This sets him off on an odyssey to determine whether his father was, in fact, Zodiac and solve this coldest of cold cases. Through the first three of the four episodes, Stewart marshals his evidence and it sounds pretty compelling. He wrote the book upon which the series was based and then, well, it all went to shit.

What’s particularly interesting is, according to this article, said going to shit started happening while this documentary was in production. This left the creators in a pickle – how to deal with the evidence that seemed to show that Stewart’s argument that Best was Zodiac was full of shit? The way they handled it was to present, point by point, experts debunking each of Stewart’s claims – to him. Essentially, they made the documentary on one track, all the while building the case against Best as the Zodiac (culminating in records showing he wasn’t even in the United States when the Zodiac killings took place) on another, only bringing them together in the end.

The result is compellingly awkward. You might expect that Stewart, confronted with the evidence contradicting his theory (some of which implies he just made shit up), that Stewart would come clean or break down in some way, blame the stress of his quest for driving him down this particular rabbit hole. Instead, he steadfastly holds onto his conclusion that his birth father – who had nothing to do with raising him – is the Zodiac killer.

To what end? It’s not clear. Maybe it’s because Stewart is so desperate for a personal history, an identity that latching onto one that horrible is preferable to not having one at all. Maybe it’s that, if he’s going to be the offspring of a monster, anyway (which Best, by all evidence, was), might as well be the offspring of one of the most infamous (and unidentified) monsters of all time? Or, maybe it was all a grift, with Stewart coming up with a slick way to monetize his search into his background.

I don’t think it’s the last one. From the documentary it really appears that Stewart believes the story he’s trying to sell. Either of the others are heart wrenching, in their own way, and make you feel sorry for him. Which is what makes this series so compelling – come for the potential true crime bombshell, stay for the fascinating portrait of a man who is so wrapped up in the distant past that he can’t come to grips with the more recent version.

Talking Is Good 

Better Call Saul wound up being one of my favorite bits of TV ever (Emmy voters be damned!).

I even like it better than Breaking Bad (which I’ve now seen all of, thank you). Partly it’s because Jimmy/Saul is a lawyer and so his character resonates more with me (he is one of our patron saints, after all), but mostly I think it’s because I find Jimmy/Saul’s character arc more compelling than Walter White’s. White’s was more viscerally terrifying at time, but the fate of Jimmy/Saul (not to mention Kim Wexler) hit me right in the feels.

So why was I so disappointed by the series finale? It wasn’t bad, far from it, and I’ve got no real beef with how character arcs wrapped up. I sort of thought the very end should have come while Jimmy/Saul was on the bus headed to prison and all the other inmates were chanting “better call Saul!”, as it would have indicated just how he was never going to be able to outrun his past, but I don’t begrudge he and Kim one last smoke.

A nitpick here about that prison, though. My federal public defender self got overly excited during the scene where Jimmy/Saul is negotiating his deal with the Government. There was talk of the US Sentencing Guidelines! He even mentioned being sent to FCI Butner, a real facility in North Carolina where Bernie Madoff (not to mention several of my clients over the years) did his time. Hooray for verisimilitude! So why, then, was his final destination a fictional prison, ADX Montrose, that was clearly a stand in for ADX Florence, the real “Alcatraz of the Rockies?” There must be a reason, but damned if I can figure it out. Maybe I’m just miffed because Montrose was the name of my elementary school.

Anyway, back to the bigger question – what was it about the finale that left me unsatisfied? Ultimately, I think it was that everything happened too quickly. Better Call Saul (like Breaking Bad before it) was never a show to rush things, sometimes coming in for criticism for being too slow to move things along (a criticism with which I don’t agree, by the way). You couldn’t say that about the finale, though, which breezes through a good chunk of time in a single hour (mostly). It felt a little forced.

Was it because I wanted more Guideline talk? Not really, but I think “talk” was something that was missing. By the time the finale rolled around the show’s two main characters, Jimmy/Saul and Kim, were worlds apart (geographically and otherwise) not just from themselves, but from anybody else. Kim had coworkers and a boyfriend down in Florida but was keeping them at arm’s length. There certainly wasn’t anyone she could confide in about things. Jimmy/Saul didn’t even really have that much, unless you count all those cinnamon roll delivers to the guy from Parks and Rec.

As a result, the decisions they make and the way they reach those decision occur entirely inside the characters’ heads. I’m not saying they don’t make sense in the end, but there’s no way to really have them grapple with their decisions because there’s no one for them to talk to. As it happens, I just read the novel Fletch (the movie was better) which gets around this clumsily by having the titular reporter dictate his thoughts into a tape recorder which is at least something.

Of course, it’s easier to handle a situation like this on paper than it is on screen. Novelists or short story writers can easily open up a character’s skull and dive in, charting as the synapses fire while the character develops a plan. Short of a voiceover there’s no good way to do the same on film or television (or radio/podcast), aside from having characters talk to other people. Which is why it’s worth thinking about how characters are going to work things out if you strip away anybody else to talk to.

Talking, as the song says, is good. It’s a good rule for real life and it’s an even better thing to keep in mind when writing fiction.

Weekly Watch: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Last year, in my review of the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, I laid out how I’m not really a fan of nu-Trek and was happy to let the rest of that series go on without me. What really dragged it down for me was that it didn’t feel very “Trekky” and it was too slavishly devoted to the modern streaming serialized storytelling ideal.

So along comes Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. Another prequel (of sorts), but also a spinoff of something that occurred in a subsequence season of Discovery, Strange New Worlds gets us back on the Enterprise during the time it was commanded by Christopher Pike. Pike is well known to original Trek fans as the guy from the pilot (replaced by Kirk for the series), with said pilot being cut up for use in a later episode that reveals Pike to be horribly injured, but with great loyalty from Spock.

 Although I’m skeptical of prequels, I thought I’d give Strange New Worlds a shot, for a few reasons. First, since there’s not a lot out there on the pre-Kirk Enterprise, I figured there was some room to tell some cool stories. Second, given that this is the Enterprise we’re talking about here and the name of the show is Strange New Worlds, I hoped it would lean into the exploration angle more than Discovery did. Finally, what I read about the show suggested it was going to be less serialized and more “mission-of-the-week,” which, again, provided some room for good stories (and to not be stuck dealing with the aftereffects of bad ones).

I’m fairly happy with how Strange New Worlds met those expectations. The prequel part is the least successful, I feel. It’s one thing to have certain characters involved because we know they were there from original Trek (Spock & Chapel, mostly), but is there a particular reason the security chief has to be named Noonien-Singh?. And isn’t Kirk’s fight with the rubber-suited guy supposed to be first contact with the Gorn? Then there’s the final episode of the first season, which is a take on the original Trek episode “Balance of Terror” (the one where we first meet the Romulans), where Kirk himself shows up. There’s more of him promised for season two, as well, which makes me worry that the writers aren’t confident in the new stories they have to tell and will keep wrapping in known characters from the show as crutches. I won’t get into potential continuity issues with the original Trek stuff (it makes my head hurt) except to say, again, what’s the point of a prequel if it doesn’t lock in certain things about your world?

 All that said, most of the stories told in the first season of Strange New Worlds are really good, some inching towards great. As promised, the episodes do tend to stand alone, which provides a good variety of atmospheres (so to speak). “Children of the Comet” is a pretty cool culture clash story, with the do-gooders on the Enterprise confronted with religious dogma. “Spock Amok,” in addition to having fun body-switching, has a diplomatic plot that reminded me of something out of Babylon 5 (high praise from me). “The Elysian Kingdom” was probably my favorite, using a typical old-school Trek plot device (an energy being!) as an excuse to dress everybody up in fantasy garb to push to a really heart-wrenching ending (sort of). Then there’s the aforementioned “A Quality of Mercy,” which “what if?”s that classic Trek episode in a pretty satisfying way.

My only real beef is that the writers had a lot of issues with endings (I can sympathize – endings are hard). Take “The Elysian Kingdom,” for example, which looks like it’s going to end on a note of melancholy uncertainty as the ship’s doctor says goodbye to his ill daughter who is going to live with/as the nearby energy being. Rather than leave this unsettled – you think you do the best thing but how can you know? – the writers went ahead and threw in a little more to make sure of a happy ending. Not bad, but could have been better. There were a couple of other episodes that went the same way, headed towards really great but they couldn’t stick the landing. Or, alternately, they didn’t do more with it, as in the episode that was less a riff than a cover of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (should have started with that ending and explored what it means).

And I have to say that while these stories were mostly self contained, there was an overarching theme to the season in terms of characters, particularly Pike. Apparently, in the Discovery episodes that spawned Strange New Worlds, Pike learns his eventual fate as we’ve seen from original Trek (it’s unclear if he learned he’ll become a running joke on Futurama) and so in this season he’s trying to figure out if there’s a way around that end. That’s what triggers “A Quality of Mercy,” but Pike confronts it several other times during the season. It’s well done.

Which is to say, I’m cautiously optimistic about the second season. Given results thus far, I’m willing to give everyone the benefit of the doubt that we won’t be overwhelmed by Kirks (Jim’s brother is on this ship, too, for some reason) and we’ll be introduced to more strange new worlds.