Is Dall-E Ethical?
Technological unemployment, art and innovation.
For artists, the advent of the internet and social media has been a godsend for generating revenue. In the past - artists had to have wealthy parents or benefactors to fund their studying and careers until they got a big break. Now, pretty much any technique can be learned via Youtube. Platforms like Newgrounds, gumroad and Patreon allow artists to monetize their work in ways never seen before.
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The trope of the “starving artist” has embedded itself into the cultural zeitgeist however, recent technological developments have made art a viable, scalable business.
This may all change very quickly. Artists now worry that these strides could be usurped in the blink of an eye by DALL-E. DALL-E, a portmanteau of Disney’s robot WALL-E and Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali. It’s an Artificial Intelligence backed image generator. Funny photos of DALL-E-created art now get millions of engagement interactions on Twitter and the algorithm just can’t get enough. The software is impressive and many times indistinguishable from human-created artwork.
With this popularity, there’s been a rise in criticism from artists. They are worried about the threat of technological unemployment with tools like DALL-E. This fear is not unfounded.
Fear of Technological Unemployment
“If every instrument could accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others, like the statues of Daedalus, or the tripods of Hephaestus, which, says the poet, “of their own accord entered the assembly of the Gods;” if in like manner, the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves”
Aristotle, 350 AD
In the 1930s English economist, John Maynard Keynes coined the term “Technological Unemployment”. Keynes argues that in each step in human history there has been a brief period of unemployment brought on by the introduction of new technologies. He would have been remarking on the industrial revolution which saw humans go from being farmers who lost work due to machine introduction to living in big cities looking for factory jobs.
In places like my hometown of Detroit, Michigan - technological unemployment has had a huge impact on the local economy. A once robust and thriving auto industry, Detroit was seen as the pinnacle of the American dream. The city is now filled with squalor and is a shell of its former self. Without getting into the corruption, redlining and segregation that all had detrimental impacts on Detroit I can say that without a doubt, technological unemployment definitely helped lead the city to its demise.
It's evident by Aristotle’s quote that humans have been afraid of robots taking our jobs for a very long time and this fear is has merit. Although there is the luddite fallacy.
The Luddite fallacy was coined during the industrial revolution to denounce claims that machines were coming for all of our jobs. It states that when jobs have been automated, new industries come and replace those jobs in the labor market. Think about fifteen years ago? Could you have predicted social media manager or Youtuber to be a viable career? How about Instagram model? These are all now real careers where thousands of people are making over six figures.
The primary principle of the Luddite fallacy is – As technology advances new jobs are created to support society around those advancements.
In fact, the OECD has released a statement on this in 1993 which would be during the height of de-industrialization in cities like Detroit.
Technology both eliminates jobs and creates jobs. Generally, it destroys lower wage, lower productivity jobs, while it creates jobs that are more productive, high-skill and better paid. Historically, the income-generating effects of new technologies have proved more powerful than the labour-displacing effects: technological progress has been accompanied not only by higher output and productivity but also by higher overall employment.
There is one caveat to the Luddite fallacy however–nobody knows how artificial intelligence is going to impact the labor market. Many economists are rethinking the premise of the luddite fallacy because when it comes to AI, we simply do not know how it will impact the larger labor market.
History of Dall-E
Dall-E was initially released at the beginning of 2021 by San Francisco based AI research startup, Open AI. The for-profit research project was founded by tech titans Elon Musk and Y Combinator’s Sam Altman in 2015. Their mission with the project was to keep a close eye on the development of artificial intelligence. Musk and others have stated fears about the capabilities of this tech and its quick progression. The SpaceX founder has gone so far as to call AI a “.fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization” Musk has since left OpenAI and has voiced concerns about its transparency.
Dall-E is not new, and its first iteration debuted in 2018. This initial model of the software shows impressive art yet compared to the 2022 Dall-e 2 version that is seen widely on social media it becomes apparent that the technology is progressing quickly. In particular, surrealism is the software’s strong point. Prompts such as “teddy bear working on new AI research underwater with 1990s technology” present incredible results when you consider that the image was produced only by an artificial intelligence image generator. However, as you can see on this photo, it doesn’t look exactly real…rather an artistic rendition of its original prompt.
This gets a bit hairier when it comes to artistic styles. Take the instance of Dall-E 2 being prompted to create an art piece of teddy bears shopping for groceries in the style of Ukiyo-e. Even if this photo does not exactly look like something out of the Japanese Tokugawa period, it’s pretty darn close. At the very least it definitely looks like something an artist took days or even weeks to create. Yet it was created by Dall-E 2 in a matter of seconds. Dall-E 2 has not been released to the wider public yet. The excitement for this technology expands beyond being able to post bizarre pictures for Twitter clout–businesses see this too. What would have taken a human artist a month to conceptualize, sketch, create, iterate and produce a final piece of work can be automated quickly for enterprise purposes.
The creation and consumption of art are enjoyable because of its human touch. So, would people even want art created by machines? The fear surrounding technological unemployment in art is not new. In the 1970s many drummers feared they’d lose their jobs because of the emerging technology of drum machines and even more recent software like Garageband.
And lots of drummers have lost out on jobs – in fact, machine-created beats are now almost standard in many popular music genres such as Rap and EDM. But here’s the deal - listeners prefer music created by humans. According to researcher Holger Henning in a 2012 physics today article, there is a very slight imperfect difference to machine-created music and music done by human drummers. Multiple blind studies have shown that humans simply prefer music created by other humans. We should establish that DALL-E is creating art that can be aesthetically pleasing. However, a part of the artistic experience is the imperfection and craftsmanship that went into the piece of work. It may be possible that DALL-E replaces many many jobs that human artists do – but at the end of the day human-created art will still reign as king. At least for now.
Is This Ethical?
So is this ethical? Open AI has recently stated that art made with its DALL-E generator is OK to be sold for a profit. This is questionable considering the image generator takes already existing images made either by artists or from photographs. It then takes these images and carefully curates something new from them, based on a prompt.
The work of real artists will be included in this repository that DALL-E uses for “inspiration”. Fundamentally, this creates an ethical issue. Artists put their blood sweat and tears into honing their craft yet barely make a living wage. It’s a tough grind for artists to try and have a livelihood. To have their work altered and changed by tools like DALL-E will be a slap in the face to many of them. Is this ethical? I would bet on it, not completely. However, according to my lay person’s understanding of AI - the system needs a database of pre-created art in order to create new pieces.
I understand why artists may find this troubling however I have not heard a solution to this issue.
Software such as this is not going away any time soon. It would be absurd to assert that technologists halt their research and progression of AI tools such as DALL-E in order to preserve the livelihoods for artists. Imagine if when the wheel was created in ancient Sumeria, it was halted because of those who lost their jobs from its invention. The world must look forward.
Artists are absolutely entitled to be afraid of tools like Dall-e using their premade artwork or being preferred over work made by real artists. When I did research for this video I found that many musicians feel like electronic musical tools only expand their artistry. I wonder in a near future if being afraid to take on this technology, artists are able to utilize it as the tool that it is.