For the record, Ashley Martin wasn’t trying to be the protagonist in a 21st-century fable about man vs. machine.
She was just an art student at Colorado Pueblo State University trying to draw a rat with a sword. Well, it was originally a sword. It became a Q-tip.
“I feel like the universe is guiding your hand, or at least with me,” said Martin, 47. “If you just breathe and let it flow, it usually comes out.”
Although Martin’s aesthetic is a bit more Beetlejuice than Ratatouille, Q-tip was just the kind of happy accident she loved in making art.
This past summer, Martin entered his Q-tip rat in the digital arts category at a Colorado State Fair competition. She uses a Photoshop-type program to refine it.
She was thrilled with second place. But the winning entry reminded her of the surreal landscapes she’d recently seen on social media: AI-generated art.
“What went through my head was, ‘Oh great, I lost to a computer.'”
This year was something of a coming out party for AI. There was that Google engineer who said the company’s AI-based chatbot had become sentient. There was also that slightly terrifying robot that testified in the British Parliament.
But AI’s biggest advances have come in what was once considered a very human activity: making art. Text-to-image AI tools like Midjourney and Stable Diffusion have exploded in popularity, translating prompts from human users into original images. The Dall-E AI platform now produces 2 million images a day, including some unusually realistic creations.
The rise of AI art has raised new questions among artists, many of whom fear the practical implications of the technology on their livelihoods — not to mention their intellectual property.
“I knew I would at least continue the debate. I didn’t realize I was going to win,” said Jason Allen, who entered the winning AI-generated entry at the Colorado State Fair. “And that I would be accused of driving a Lamborghini across the finish line of a foot race.”
Allen used the AI platform Midjourney to create his first place, Space Opera Theater. It looks a bit like an ornate Renaissance painting set on another planet.
When news spread online that Allen had used AI, the vitriol began to pour in.
“Like, ‘Oh, you’re a hack,'” said Allen, who said he spent 80 hours perfecting the Midjourney piece before it was finished. “You’re a fraud.”
When using an AI text-to-image tool like Midjourney, it can feel like a cheat code. You enter a phrase that describes what you want – for example, “Kai Rysdal eating a sandwich in space in the style of Van Gogh.”
Within about a minute, Midjourney produces four original images that it thinks might match the prompt. You can then select the image you like best, create new variations based on that image, and refine them from there.
The private sector is already starting to realize the program’s potential, said David Holtz, Midjourney’s founder.
“Business owners, game designers, people in the film industry use it,” he said.
About 30 percent of Midjourney’s users are professionals who use it primarily to brainstorm commercial projects, Holtz said, adding that technology like Midjourney will change the way artists work. But smart employers won’t use it to replace them.
“Some people will see this as an opportunity to reduce costs and have the same quality,” he said. “They will fail.”
Ashley Martin, a runner-up at the Colorado State Fair, began experimenting with AI. She said the sense of “commanding the whole universe” was sorely lacking.
But she also said AI can be useful for things like backgrounds, which she sometimes struggles with. And for her next piece, AI will be front and center — at least metaphorically.
“The first one I’m working on is a robot stomping on my head,” Martin said. “I’m trying to pull the cable to the server to turn it off. So I have the cable in my hand and the robot has a brush and it’s coming after me.
Martin said he thinks what Jason Allen created with AI is still art. It just belongs in a different category than what she does.
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