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    AI Can’t Replace Artists & Here’s Why

    Posted August 23, 2023, 9:15 am by Sarah Bay-Cheng, PhD
    graffiti says everything has beauty but not everyone can see it

    It’s all over the news. News pundits ask: Will artificial intelligence replace artists? 

    With the release of programs such as ChatGPT and Midjourney, it seems as if everyone is talking about artificial intelligence (AI). There are two main ideas in the current debates: either AI is changing everything and you should learn it right now; or, AI will destroy humanity and we should get rid of it right now

    As the Dean of a mutli-disciplinary school of the arts and design, I have paid close attention when these discussions involve the arts, especially amid suggestions that AI programs will replace creators with programmers or prompt engineers. This is what influencers are promoting online, but it’s not the whole story.

    Despite some dire predictions, I don’t believe emerging artists and other creatives should worry that an AI program will replace them. It is important to remember that artists and art schools have been using AI and algorithmic tools for a while. As the University World News recently reported, AI is prevalent in art schools. Here at York University, we have faculty specializing in AI and art, and the University received more than $100m for a research program focused on the ethical development and use of emerging technologies.

    AI is a Tool for Artists, Not the Competition

    Our philosophy is that artists and designers should not fear but learn as much as possible about these tools. Emerging creatives should engage and experiment with new techniques because current processes will be changed and perhaps even improved. It is likely that some elements of the creative process will be automated. However, it may also be true that the skills we teach and learn in the arts will become even more valuable.

    If you have used ChatGPT or Midjourney, you will have noticed how quickly these programs can synthesize large amounts of data into everything from convincing imitations of famous painters to dogs in spaceships. With correct prompting, AI programs can write convincing letters, explain physics in the approximations of Shakespeare, and create convincing video simulations of people who have never existed.

    What these programs cannot do is sew sequins on a homemade costume, dance in the park, or imagine something that has never been seen. These programs are masterful at combining and recombining existing digital data and they are excellent tools for artists’ pre-visualization work. It is fun to test the limits of one’s imagination in these environments, although rather quickly the works all begin to look similar.

    This doesn’t mean that you cannot create great art with AI. The artist, Refik Anadol utilizes AI to create immersive exhibits and artworks. His vision, scale, and the meaning behind his works distinguish them from other forms of digital art. It is both the imagination and integration of new elements and the craft of creation that are still exclusively in the domain of human artists.

    As the tools of digital creation become increasingly commonplace, artists will distinguish themselves through the material craft and manual skills that are becoming rarer and thus more valuable. The techniques of art-making are always changing, but the fundamentals of pictorial representation, sound and storytelling have remained mostly constant. Each new innovation – including graphite pencils, photography, word processors, cinema, and algorithms -- changes the techniques of creation. But at the core, creativity is a fundamentally human act.

    I look forward to what a new generation of artists - equally skilled in digital and traditional techniques and practices - will do. I believe no AI program is ever a replacement for each student who makes our collective creativity possible.

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    Sarah Bay Cheng, PhD Headshot

    Sarah Bay-Cheng, PhD

    Dr. Sarah Bay-Cheng is an accomplished leader in the fields of arts, media, performance, and design, currently serving as the Dean of the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design (AMPD) at York University. With a demonstrated passion for cultivating creative excellence, Sarah has dedicated her career to shaping the future of arts education.