Image above created by the AI image generator (DALL-E)
“There used to be big men in the world, men of mind and power and imagination. There was St. Paul and Einstein and Shakespeare… There was Julius Caesar and Tolstoy and Immanuel Kant. But now it’s all robots. Robots and the pleasure principle. Everybody’s head is a cheap movie show.”
― Walter Tevis, Mockingbird
I know the title is a little melodramatic. The demise of photography has been prophesied for the past several decades but something feels a little different this time. AI is moving at such a pace that it is set to fundamentally disrupt industries, livelihoods and lives.
On March 14, 2023 German photographer Boris Eldagsen‘s eerie image entitled Pseudomnesia: The Electrician was selected as the winner in the open “Creative” category at the prestigious Sony World Photography Awards. Eldagsen refused his award, revealing that it was not a photograph crafted by a person but an AI generated image. Eldagsen confessed that his submission was done to test the judge’s ability to recognize images produced by artificial intelligence and to start a conversation about its impact on photography.
The debate that Eldagsen desired never took place with Sony. They accepted his refusal of the award. Then issued a well-crafted sanitized press release that communicated nothing of substance and quickly moved on.
Through the centuries photography has evolved from the oldest surviving photos produced in the early 1800’s on chemically treated light sensitive metal plates to our current digital media. The one constant has been human control and direction. Eldagsen’s rejection of his award highlights AI’s impact on photography. There is no blueprint for our current path. No one can guarantee if AI will bring increased productivity or curtail human creativity.
AI image generators utilize algorithms to create “new” images based on a set of input parameters or conditions laid out by programmers. To teach the software to form pictures a huge data-set of existing images are used. Mostly taken from the internet, these images include everything from paintings to photographs. Images produced by these generators also bring into question copyright concerns due to images being formed from existing pictures.
A Curious Trend
A trend since the 1990’s has seen a steady lowering of IQ scores on standardized tests worldwide. This decline has coincided with our increased dependence on AI. There are no definitive answers for the cause. One theory does suggest an over reliance on technology and smart devices. The technology that is making life simpler and more convenient is potentially making us all dumber. In the future, what will we prioritize, ease and comfort or increased human potential based on our own abilities?
Undoubtedly, AI will make us more productive but will the cost be our creativity? How do we foster it, when AI can generate images within minutes with a few selective prompts on a computer? In a few short years, it has become increasingly more difficult for the average person to tell the difference between artificial images produced by algorithms or with a photographer’s eye. The possibilities of what it could produce consistently in a few years is frightening.
The Future for Photographers
In 1987 Thomas and John Knoll developed Photoshop and firmly put us on the path we are on currently. This software dramatically made it easier to manipulate digital images. Since then, there has been a generation of photographers utilizing this software and other tools to mold and bend images. More importantly, there has been a viewing public accepting and consuming incredibly stylized photoshopped pictures from advertisers, companies, influencers, etc. that is already pushing the boundary of what is real and authentic. The next logical progression is images entirely produced by AI.
Despite artificially produced images becoming more common, there will always be people who value authentic photography. There will always be a need for cherished moments captured in an image. Photographers who build rapport with subjects that can translate their unique personality or character onto a picture is a skill that IA can not duplicate. Wedding photography, photojournalism, street photography, event photography, and portrait photography are some areas that should be safe for the foreseeable future.
AI image generators like DALL-E and Midjourney still have their limitations. They are far from perfect. However, AI’s ability to mimic reality and learn improves exponentially every year. Recently, firms have been experimenting with hybrid chips incorporating human neurons with silicon based chips. These hybrid chips are learning faster than previous silicon based chips. Translating to less time, data, and energy needed to train AI. These new chips are not economically viable yet, but the time is fast approaching when they will be.
Market forces and the masses wanting on-demand and convenient images will give these artificial “artisans” the advantage in some areas. We continue to surrender our control to algorithms that influence what we watch, read and create. Like any tool, how it is used lies firmly in the hands of those who possess it. We should be wise in its use. Otherwise, we run the risk of losing far more than we gain by letting AI get out of control.
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