It’s a hot topic right now in all circles. Certainly in creative ones. And I’ve heard everything from “shut it down before it takes over the world” to “this is the best thing since the Garden of Eden.” As a creative–a writer, a cover designer, a blogger, and co-owner of a publishing company–I have my opinions. And while everyone has their opinions, which means mine isn’t worth more than anyone else’s, I wanted to weigh in. Because in my family, we’ve given this a lot of thought. Like, A LOT. So I’m hopeful that the perspective we’ve reasoned out will be helpful to someone else out there.
What Is AI?
AI stands for Artificial Intelligence; it’s been around for a long time at this point and is already integrated into most of the technology you use on a daily basis. For the purpose of this discussion, though, we’ll be focusing on the specific forms of AI that are igniting all this controversy–“chat bot” and the AI image generators.
ChatGPT, and at this point, many other language-based AI interfaces, is basically a program into which you type your question or thought or prompt, and the computer spits out an answer.
You’ve no doubt seen countless articles about what it can do, its weaknesses, scary examples where it claims to be alive, people using this in ways they shouldn’t, like to write legal briefs or school essays, and so on.
The image generators vary in their capabilities, but they work largely the same way. You type in a prompt like “ultra-realistic photo of a woman dressed in an evening gown from 1909 standing in front of an English manor house with a lion at her side, from the back, sunset lighting” and the program delivers you four possible images. You can ask it for more or click on one you like and ask it for refinements, or to zoom out, and so on.
But should we be using it? Is it really dangerous? Is it stealing from artists?
Every single post or article I’ve read–and I’ve read A LOT of them at this point–that decry AI come down to one very important thing: they are afraid that AI will displace them.
Creatives are afraid that people will use AI to write a book or create art, and users won’t be able to tell or care about the difference, and that human artists will be a thing of the past. They’re afraid that they’ll lose their income, their purpose, and their creative expression to a bunch of bot-created garbage.
And let’s be honest. People will use it for that. Just like people have been pirating others’ creative work and passing it off as their own for decades if not centuries. People will put dozens of bot-created books on Amazon with their own name and count on people buying them. Oh, Amazon will crack down on them when they get complaints and take them down, but they’ll already have made some money. And when they take down one, they’ll just put up another. They’ll open new accounts when theirs get suspended. They’ll do anything for that easy buck.
It’s true. They will. You know how I can be sure? Because those people have already been doing the same thing, either with stolen work from the internet, public domain books, or the like. Those people will ALWAYS try to cheat the system, and they’ll succeed to an extent. But are they really a threat to legitimate artists and writers? Of course not. Because audiences are built through trust. Real creatives grow audiences who come back to them time and time again because those readers or art-enthusiasts love their work. That isn’t going to change.
But haven’t people been put out of work before by technology?
Yep. They sure have. Factories employ a lot fewer people than they used to. Cashiers have been largely displaced by self check-out. Not entirely, of course, because there are always those customers or items or parts of a process that still require a human touch. But it’s true that the numbers have changed. It’s a very real issue, and one that has to be addressed; honestly, changing technology has ALWAYS impacted the workforce, from the first factory that put cottage-industries all but out of business to today’s leaps.
Here’s where this new development is different–humanity needs to be creative. We are creative. I firmly believe it’s part of being made in the image of the Creator. And while we also need to work, we don’t need to do one specific thing. Yes, we absolutely find jobs we like and enjoy and don’t want to lose…losing those jobs is a horrible thing for anyone to go through. It’s traumatic when it happens, and my prayer is always that when it does happen, those people will find positions they like even more, that provide even better. Distasteful and scary as it is, the job force is constantly changing, with some positions being obliterated and new ones being created. My family was caught up in some of this too in recent years, so I know firsthand how it can affect people. But one thing we had to learn to ask was this: is that job part of your identity before God? When He looks at you, does he see cashier or factory worker or transportation manager? Of course not. He sees His precious child–that is our ultimate identity.
And creativity is part of that identity, because of His creative image He stamped on us.
No matter how good AI gets, humanity will still find a way to be creative. Writers are still going to write. Artists are still going to paint or sculpt or draw. That will not change, because it cannot. We, by virtue of being human, cannot just hand off our creativity to a machine and be content with that. We will keep creating because we must be creative. And as long as people keep being creative, other people will keep supporting it, because we also have a deep-seated recognition of the value of others’ creativity.
Use Versus Misuse
So, yes, people will misuse it…but does that mean it’s by nature bad? The internet is misused all the time, but can you really imagine your life without it?
The fact of misuse doesn’t mean the thing itself is bad. It’s just a tool.
You can misuse any tool–even to the harm of others. Hammers, chainsaws, pipe wrenches, crowbars…they’ve all been used for crime. But you know what else they’re used for? Building. Crafting. Creating. Fixing. Making things work.
Personally, I’m a big fan of indoor plumbing and a roof over my head, so I’m not going to begrudge the plumber his tool, nor the carpenter. I’m not going to tell my husband to cut up the firewood with a handsaw because chainsaws have hurt people. For that matter, I’m not going to say we all have to walk wherever we’re going because people have used cars to run other people down.
We can’t judge a tool for how people misuse it. So let’s look at what AI is actually bringing to the table and evaluate it objectively.
AI Image Generation
I’m a book cover designer. I use a lot of images in my work, most of which are what we call “stock photos.” Specifically, I use “royalty-free stock photos.” What this means is that photographers take images and supply them to a site that then sells them to consumers. With a standard license from this site, I can create images for commercial use that can sell up to a half a million instances of the image. If it goes above that, I’d need to purchase the extended license, but that rarely comes up. Royalty-based stock images are also photographer-provided, but the end user pays per impression; so an initial license would cover, say, 5,000 books, and after that they must renew the license for another fee.
There are FREE stock images in plenty of places…but most are not. Most expect to be paid for their work.
Guess what? People steal them. They use images, either on purpose or unknowingly, inappropriately. They use things for commercial projects that are NOT licensed for commercial use. But thankfully, that doesn’t keep people from still making their photography available for legitimate use. I’m glad of that. Because most of the book covers I create use 5-20 images.
Yes, you saw that right. The book covers I put together often have two or three images in the background, sometimes more like four or five. The model can be comprised of as few as 1 or as many as 8-10 different pieces. Then I’ll use vector images for flourishes, dividers, corners. I’ll get another to apply to the whole thing for texture or light.
The end creation is made up of the work of a lot of people…but none of those people have a right to that end work, only I (and my client) does, because I used those pieces to create something new. I used those pieces correctly, with permission, licensing each one. Or using free ones, I do that too. I use public domain (all rights have been released) images for plenty of things.
With the best AI image generators, I can tell it what I want and it’ll give it to me, to a greater or worse degree. Would I use it for an entire cover? Absolutely NOT, because those images can’t be copyrighted, which means someone else could use the exact same thing. But that’s the same reason I don’t use ANY stock photo for an entire cover. I always change something, so that my client’s cover will never look exactly like someone else’s.
Would I use an AI-generated image for part of a book cover? I would. And I have. Not for the whole thing, but for bits and pieces that I otherwise couldn’t create or would have had to spend days creating from this arm and that shoulder and this back and that set of hips. It’s a tool that can save me hours and days, and I’m not at all opposed to using it like I use public domain or stock images.
But How Can We Know It Hasn’t Stolen the Images?
Here’s the thing. All creativity is based on what we’ve encountered in the world. When I draw a flower, I’m basing it not just on the flower I saw in nature, but on the style of artists I admire. I may even base it entirely on another painting I’ve seen that I don’t even distinctly remember seeing.
Or, weirder still, I might draw that at my desk while, across the world, someone else is drawing something so very similar that we’d be considered copies of each other, without even knowing it. It happens ALL THE TIME. Creativity is never unique, much as we want to think it is. Ideas pop up independently at the same or similar times in different locations ALL THE TIME.
So no, I can’t say for sure that AI used only inspiration from public domain things. I can’t say it didn’t, either. I can’t say that what it created hasn’t been created before…just like I can’t say it won’t be created again by a human who never saw that AI image.
What I can say is that the more it’s used, the better defined its rules will become, and the more precise it will get. As with any technology, use means continual progress. And I’m okay with that.
I hear a lot that Fairchild’s Lady is very similar to The Scarlet Pimpernel. Which is hilarious, because I’ve never read it, watched it, or even come across a summary of it (until I looked it up to see if that was true). But sure, it’s similar. Because there are only so many variations of plots. We always make them unique…but they still sound the same in a short description.
AI is going to do the same thing. It will have commonalities with existing work, but that doesn’t automatically mean it stole from it.
What About Writing?
I’ve read, at this point, thousands if not hundreds of thousands of words created by AI. Sometimes, yes, they sound very, very similar to whatever I’ve asked it to draw from, which is a great caution not to use it as-is for something meant to be shared as your own.
But like any tool, you can get better at it and teach it to deliver something more original and unique. Something my husband has been doing a lot is saying, “Here’s an example of Roseanna’s writing. Now, in Roseanna’s voice and style, give me a written, virtual tour of Alnwick, Northumberland, highlighting the places of historical significance to tourists.”
ChatGPT then delivers a written tour. It selects the places most popular in the area, and it sounds close to how I would sound when describing it, rather than how the tourism sites sound. I then can take those descriptions, edit and add my own personal tastes and touches, and use it on my website. Why? Because it saved me literally hours of research and drafting. I fact-check it, but that’s quick. I edit and rewrite, but that’s quick too.
But that’s just for internet content that I really don’t claim any specific rights to.
Books or content I sell is a different matter. Would I use AI to write my novels? Absolutely not. I love writing my novels, and I love knowing that what readers enjoy about my novels isn’t just the plot or concept, but the bits of me I put in them. My faith, my insights, my epiphanies, my pain, my heart. AI can approximate all those things surprisingly well, but it’s never going to be as “me” as I am.
What it can do, however, is help me take my creativity to new heights. The advantage of AI is that it isn’t confined by the same limitations that my imagination is. So if I were to lay out a plot snag I’m having and ask it for suggestions, it would come up with some wild and crazy ones…and some very mundane ones…and everything in between. It would present me with CHOICES that I can then incorporate into my own ideas, and as with any brainstorming, it will help me broaden my mind from the often-fake limitations I’ve put on things and help me see beyond them.
It can help me outline. It can help me identify flaws. It can be a TOOL that shortens some parts of the process so that I can focus on other parts.
I personally see no problem with that, any more than I see a problem with Spellcheck or word processors in general, with critique groups or name generators or any of the hundreds of other tools available to writers.
What I create using that tool will be no less mine. But collaboration with ANY other thinker, be it human or artificial, will force me out of my own box and make me MORE creative. That’s nothing to shy away from or apologize for. It’s something to celebrate and embrace.
I don’t think AI itself is anything to fear, any more than any technological advancement is to be feared. Can and will it be misused? YES. Of course. Because EVERYTHING is misused. That’s the fault of the humans, not of the tool. But the more it’s used correctly, the more refined it will become, and the more rules will be created to keep that misuse to a minimum, as with anything.
I’ve come across a lot of people using ChatGPT in ridiculous ways (“write a poem about this political figure”), just to try to prove a point. I call THAT a misuse too. One thing Chat is great at is learning what the user wants and delivering that. So if the user wants to play “gotcha!” it will provide something to “get.” But you know what that reminds me of? People in the 90s putting in odd search terms into the early search engines, to try to make it give bad results. Silly, right? Because what we want are GOOD results, and in this day and age, we can’t even imagine not having those search engines available.
AI will be the same way. As more people use it WELL, it will not only become better, it will simply integrate into our daily lives in ways that make those lives better too. As we test its limits, we’ll expand our own. As we let it lead us outside the box, we’ll soon find some walls coming down in our own minds. There will be those who try to use it to build walls, too, but they’re not going to get very far with it. They won’t be the ones shaping the future either of AI or of the world.
AI is here to stay. It’s been here for decades already. Now it’s finally to the point where it’s accessible to the common person, but that doesn’t mean the common person knows how to best use it…just like most of us use the internet to watch cute cat videos on YouTube instead of constantly educating ourselves on the wealth of knowledge stored within it. 😉 But it is WORTH using, and using well.
More, I firmly believe that those who learn how to harness it and use it to expand their own endeavors will soon be leading the pack in whatever those endeavors are. Not because they’re cheating or using stolen material, but because they embrace the tool and figure out how to best use it for the things they love. This is like the introduction of tractors or the automobile or the internet. It’s a revolution that many won’t understand but most everyone will end up using in some form or another; some for entertainment, some without even thinking about it, some to create and innovate and increase.
Regardless, it isn’t ever the technology that we need to fear. It is, as it has always been, the people. People will cheat. People will steal. People will lie. But that’s no reason not to use something right.
I’m excited about what opportunities AI is opening up for us as creatives…because I know it will not displace us. Instead, I know it will help us to be MORE creative, to reach new heights, to focus less on drudgery and more on the fun parts. And the readers and art-enthusiasts will benefit from that too.
I’ve thought many times about how glad I am that I live in the computer age–I don’t have to write my books out by hand (though some still do) or on a typewriter (though some still do). I don’t have to rely only on out-of-date encyclopedias or my local library’s minuscule offerings on a subject, I can access EVERYTHING with a few keystrokes. Writers 150 years ago might have thought it unsporting, ludicrous, or not “true” creativity, because it wasn’t their way of doing things. That’s okay. I know that I’m only here, doing what I love, because they paved the way.
But I won’t make the mistake of claiming the same thing about the next technological revolution. AI is that next revolution, and I’m not going to fight it. Instead, I’m going to master it. I’m going to embrace it. I’m going to learn how it can make me better, not fear that it will put me out of work.
How about you?