I’ll do the thinin’ around here!
I’ll do the thinin’ around here!
Do you remember that great line from Hanna-Barberra’s “Quick Draw McGraw?” Well, the idea of who’s doing the thinking has over the past few years taken on a new significance with the development of Artificial Intelligence, hereafter referred to as AI.
AI isn’t new. The idea has been around and researched for decades, but in the past decade the science has really taken off. During the golden age of science fiction, the idea of thinking machines (i.e., robots) were a staple of storytellers. In 1942, the great Issac Asimov wrote a short story entitled “Runaround,” in which he introduced the Three Laws of Robotics:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
In context, these “Laws” were quoted from the “Handbook of Robotics, 56th edition” which, according to the story was printed in 2058 A.D. In subsequent writing, Asimov added a fourth, or as he called it, the “Zeroth Law,” which states that A Robot may not harm humanity, or by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
So, you may ask, what is all this talk of robots doing in a newsletter for a classical music station. A good question. The idea for this story came to me very recently, when I saw a report on CBS Sunday Morning about AI in the world of art and literature. There are AI programs, several of which are free to download, that can write short stories, paint pictures (in the style of any artist you choose), and compose music (again in the style of a composer of your choice) and the person using the program for such creation can claim the work as his or her own work.
While some see this as a remarkable move forward, others (like me) find it a bit disconcerting. Let’s not forget that the “driverless” car relies on AI, as do the many safety innovations that help a driver avoid a collision. There are toy robots that can make basic decisions while being played with. AI is touching just about every aspect of our lives, all with the idea of “making our lives easier.”
Now, I’m not one of those people (or at least, I try not to be) who revel in the “good old days,” when you had to work your you-know-what off for a buck and a quarter an hour, or we didn’t have so many of the conveniences upon which we rely today. But when I think of someone passing off a piece of art, music or writing has his or her own that was generated by a computer, I am deeply troubled. I remember reading somewhere how humans have developed from being tool makers because we needed those tools (and weapons) to survive in a hostile climate, to inventors of devices to enhance our lifestyle and improve on products we use (the industrial Revolution comes to mind), to a society where we now adjust our lifestyles to meet the demands of our technology. Think about that—the DEMANDS of our technology. Now ask yourself how much your lifestyle has changed as a result of technology. Did you embrace these changes, or did you resist them? Did you acquire this technology because you saw it as something you needed, or because you were told your life would be incomplete without it?
Of course, every technological innovation has its detractors. The telephone was met with much skepticism in its early days. Many people thought they didn’t need some box in their homes ringing at all hours of the day or night. Television met with the same skepticism. Yet can you imagine not having a phone or a TV in your home?
This is not a diatribe against technology. I like technology. I’m not the brightest bulb on the Christmas Tree, and it takes me a while to get comfortable with certain innovations, because the changes are taking place so quickly. But I enjoy technology, as long as I’m the one telling my device what to do. I do fear a time when our AI technology will become advanced enough to decide to refuse our commands. It doesn’t seem possible, but think about it. If we are programming computers to make decisions and create things, at what point does the program take on the characteristics of the person who wrote the code. Could that person, unwittingly, program your device, whatever that device may be, to refuse to perform certain operations or download certain items, because that person simply doesn’t like them? I suppose it’s already happening, but we don’t know it. Sounds a bit paranoid, I know.
Another thought about AI creating literature, art, music, etc, is how this will impact students. There was a time (and probably still is) where a student could find a research paper online, copy it, make a few superficial modifications, and submit the work as his or her own. Modern search engines have made it very easy for teachers and administrators to discover this work was plagiarized. If a student, on the other hand, gives an AI program certain parameters, and a few research sources to quote, then directs the program to write an appropriate paper or dissertation, is it really plagiarism? I suppose the same could happen with music or art assignments as well. Aside from plagiarism, how will such work be copyrighted? Presently, the US Copyright office has stated that it would not grant copyrights to “works that lack human authorship” and that “the Office will not register works produced by a machine or mere mechanical process that operates randomly without any creative input or intervention from a human author.” That seems a bit vague to me. What constitutes “human intervention?” Smarter people than me will have to figure that one out.
A bigger question is will the rise of AI in the arts bring about the end of the composer, painter, writer as a career? Well, a similar question was asked back in the 1980’s, when chess playing computers were being improved to a level of grandmaster play. Garry Kasparov, the world champion at the time played 2 matches against a computer known as “Deep Blue” in 1996 and 1997. He won the first match and lost the second. Suddenly there was the hue and cry of the demise of chess played by human beings. Well, I am happy to say that chess is alive and well among tournament players, and with a brief break from over the board play during the pandemic, over the board tournaments are taking place around the world. I don’t think that any computer will truly replace human intelligence, intuition, and inspiration in the arts, just as it didn’t in the world of chess. Maybe a closer look at Asimov’s Laws of Robotics deserve a closer look in the context of the arts.