Disruption, discomfort and discovery – our Creative Director, John Taylor, examines the industry’s latest tool: AI.
“At present our most dangerous pet is electricity—in the telegraph, the street lamp and the telephone. […] The telephone is the most dangerous of all because it enters into every dwelling. Its interminable network of wires is a perpetual menace to life and property. In its best performance, it is only a convenience. It was never a necessity.”
Extract from “Nature’s Revenge on Genius”, as featured in the November 1889 issue of Nature.
Progress. It’s an exciting word, full of potential and momentum. Progress inspires us to push boundaries and explore uncharted territories, make scientific breakthroughs and push the limits of what’s possible. But change can also be unsettling; it forces us to confront the unknown. Change can be uncomfortable, and progress is no exception.
Progress often asks us to abandon familiar habits and adapt to different modes of thinking, new tools and unfamiliar systems. This can be intimidating, even frightening because humans are hardwired to seek comfort and stability, but progress often demands that we embrace some degree of discomfort and uncertainty.
“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
Rewind almost 2500 years ago to ancient Greece; you’ll find the philosopher Socrates opposing the very idea of writing. He believed it was a sub-standard way to communicate, potentially eroding memory and discouraging face-to-face conversations, leaving us reliant on easily misunderstood symbols. Still, progress happened, and here we are, communicating. Even if it is with emojis, hashtags and memes.
Fast forward to the 15th century, when Johannes Gutenberg gave us the printing press; again, detractors whined that his mechanical monster would spread blasphemy and topple religious institutions. But once again, progress powered through. The printing press revolutionised society, spreading knowledge, raising literacy and creating a whole new industry. And religion? Well, it still has a niche following of 5.8 billion faithful.
Photography was going to kill art. The phonograph was going to end live music. Cinema was said to be a tool for propaganda. Radio was going to make us illiterate. TV was predicted to rot our minds and ruin family values. Electronic music was soulless. Video games would make people violent. And now, we face our latest progress shaped ‘threat’ – artificial intelligence. And if you’ve watched Terminator, you’ll know how that will turn out.
At the current rate of progress, you’d need to be a robot from the future just to keep up with all the latest developments in AI. In the last few weeks, I’ve read about a team that’s built an AI capable of reading minds. By merging functional magnetic resonance imaging (a neuroimaging technique) and stable diffusion (a model used for AI image generation), they’re producing images directly from the brainwaves of their subjects. Theoretically, this same model could be perfected and used to visualise dreams and maybe even memories.
Meanwhile, record labels are desperately trying to claim legal ownership of their artists’ ‘vocal identity’ as AI voice generators reach the point where they can convincingly clone rappers, both living and dead. Believe it or not, a Korean company has even launched a service to preserve your ageing relatives in the form of a perfect digital AI clone. After just seven hours of interview footage at their studio, they can mimic your loved one’s voice, appearance and even family memories. After they die, you can visit them in futuristic viewing rooms around the world and have a conversation. Last but not least, the Godfather of AI, Geoffrey Hinton, sensationally resigned from Google this week. He said he regrets his work and warned that AI technology could upend life as we know it.
“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”
– Pablo Picasso
Well, from a creative perspective, at least, we’re a little more optimistic at Better. And we can hardly claim to be ‘powering progress’ by avoiding the discomfort and uncertainty of new tech. So, we’ve been playing around with AI in one form or another for over a year now; and in that time, I’ve generated over 55,000 images with AI; our studio has experimented with custom AI-driven illustration styles, mood boards, concept imagery; and our writers and strategists have toyed with accelerating content creation and brand strategy formulation using Chat-GPT. The overwhelming opinion so far? It’s just another tool. A fancy hammer, if you will, but a hammer nonetheless. Yes, it’s a hammer that can write a screenplay in seven minutes and predict what colour palette will be popular in two years time, but it still needs a human hand to wield it.
For now, AI is a bit like a blindfolded chef locked in an infinite pantry. It has every ingredient on the planet except one: the recipe. The AI is happy to serve up a visual and verbal smorgasbord, but don’t be too surprised if your dish comes with a side order of “WTF?”. In other words, getting AI to do ‘something’ is easy; getting it to do exactly what you want or need it to do? Yeah, not so much. So it’s not exactly the instant ‘cheat’ solution people perceive it to be.
You may be able to steer the AI using natural language-based requests (aka ‘prompts’). But results that match the vision in your head rarely happen at the push of a button. It’s a lot closer to a more traditional working relationship or collaboration; the key difference really is that the time between iterations is collapsed to be almost instantaneous. But again, if you don’t ask the right questions, you’ll just get wrong answers faster. So, while AI might not be here to kill creativity, society or humanity, if you’re not careful, it could kill your focus, schedule and budget. The infinite potential for variations, iterations and refinements is a rabbit hole in itself, one that is easy to get lost in and burn valuable time in a commercial setting.
This brings me nicely to my next point: these new tools can make you a god of gorgeous execution, producing polished visuals at breakneck speed. But before you start worshipping at the altar of artificial intelligence, remember that there’s a catch: they won’t make you a god of ideas. You need an original idea to feed into this tool in the first place; otherwise, you’re just using a fancy photocopier. And for original ideas? Again, you need a creative human with a brain full of expertise, experience, taste, and references.
But wait one second. Can anything generated by AI even be ‘original’? Isn’t it just making a collage of bits and bobs that other people have done? Aren’t thousands of artists up in arms because AI has been trained by scraping billions of images from the internet without anyone’s permission? There’s a fair bit to unpick, but fundamentally, the thing generated by AI is entirely new (although original is a tricky term, as I’ll explain). It is not akin to a ‘collage’, ‘montage’ or ‘copy and paste’ of existing elements.
The second point – the furious artists – is heavily intertwined with the idea of ‘originality’. Yes, the artists are justifiably angry; they feel like they have unwittingly been used to train an adversary that could cost them work or even replace them. They feel their ideas, their ‘intellectual property’, so to speak, has been stolen. But the big problem here is, that’s exactly how they learned to do what they do.
“The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”
– Albert Einstein
Every artist learns from others along the way; their style is a mix of all the people they tried to emulate when they started out. Over the years, even a lifetime, those influences blend along with the artist’s experience. They develop a style. But broadly speaking, every style, even every idea, is a remix. Humans have been remixing language, concepts, art, music and storytelling for centuries. Every new discovery, every breakthrough was made by standing on the shoulders of those who came before. The way AI learns and then creates is, in many ways, not a million miles away from the way humans create. It’s just that the pace of this particular progress is happening so quickly, people are struggling to keep up or even to know how to feel about it.
But that’s the problem with progress; it pushes people out of their comfort zone and into an unfamiliar and exciting world full of new possibilities. Progress wants to happen and we need to keep on top of it. So we can understand it, harness it and ultimately power it.
Watch this space for more information, reports and results as we experiment with AI.
Imagery generated by the author using AI (Midjourney).