AI – The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

AI. Artificial Intelligence. It’s everywhere these days.

AI is defined as the simulation of human intelligence by software-coded heuristics. Heuristics are the strategies derived from previous experiences with similar problems.

Boxed in is another way of looking at it.

Human thought is, or rather should be, limitless.

There are three schools of thought about using AI.

  1. It will greatly assist humanity.
  2. It can help with some things.
  3. It is dangerous.

These perspectives can be applied to AI in general, as well as AI in photography.

In this post, I am specifically focusing on AI in art though the rationale can be applied to AI in other areas as well.

A View from the Other Side

I view AI as falling into categories 2 & 3.

My perspective on AI comes from decades of being a software engineer. I’ve been privy to the rapid changes and all-out embrace of data and ever diminishing value of the individual when making decisions (on anything). Computers do not allow for the application of an individual’s will. Exceptions are no longer allowed unless the system is programmed to allow it. If an individual makes the decision to overrule the system because it is the correct thing to do, there are consequences to pay. This is heavily evident in our day-to-day lives.

Free will is not a benefit but a danger to a compartmentalized methodology. Computers have evolved from being a calculator and data storage devices to a machine determining the value of a human.

No, I am not being a dramatic extremist. An example: Your driver’s license. You have a number and an expiration date assigned to you. That number and date is in a database which identifies you. If your license expires, watch what happens when you try to use the license as an ID. You aren’t expired (thankfully) but that ID has more significance than you now.

Think about your last visit with your doctor. These folks are now relegated with the task of checking off boxes about your visit into a database. They are healers turned into data mining collectors.

Another fallout of computerization is the lack of subject matter experts. If it isn’t in the database, no further knowledge about something exists. The tangibles are rapidly becoming theoretical at best.

We are imperfect. It is critical to remember that the systems we create are by definition also imperfect.

The view that AI will greatly assist humanity is a myth loaded with human arrogance. It is the ugly that awaits if we embrace it blindly.

The Mind’s Eye

Everything we do comes from within.

Think about this for a moment.

Our experiences reflect how we view the world, how we express ourselves, and how we live our life. It is what makes us individuals and distinct from one another.

Expression through the written word is a manifestation of ourselves. Converting thoughts into words takes time. This post is an example of hours of thought and subsequent writing. Paragraphs can now be instantly generated by AI. No mental effort or actual knowledge of a subject is required by the requester. Nothing of oneself reflected. It is bland and vacuous. The AI-generated content should not be trusted as factual. What is the basis of truth? Who decided what the truth is? There is no one to ask or to challenge. No one to have a discussion with. Orwellian, no?

I’ve seen “artwork” totally generated by AI. A description is keyed in and the software generates the scene completely. Is the scene a function of your intent? Not really. Based on the description it creates a scene constructed from the elements in a database. Is it cool? Sure, absolutely. Is it dangerous? Without a doubt it is. The artist is not the person issuing the request. This is not equivalent to a blank canvas with the computer acting as a paintbrush. The intent of the mind, experience, talent, and vision of a person is gone. It is sterile and soulless. The AI output is based on components the software generator has available. A database has limits and boundaries regardless of how many terabytes it uses. Using artificial intelligence to now fully generate art further diminishes humanity’s will.

Art is all about a person’s vision and conscientious application of it. As a creator, I get satisfaction from creating. Literally. I enjoy thinking about the process, from planning the location, the gear, the settings, the framing, the processing, and the selection of papers the image is printed on. Good or bad, the outcome of the image is based on my decisions. I own the responsibility. All of it.

So where does the application of AI begin and end?

There is a tendency to apply a blanket perspective on AI. Some are quick to attack those that see and voice the detrimental aspects of it. If you use any type of AI you are a hypocrite unless you embrace all of it. Um, no.

AI is a slippery slope. It is important to remember that databases do not free, but entrap.

AI by definition is what it is. Artificial.

I Think, Therefore I Am

I’ve read exclamations that AI allows you to create photographs of far-off places without leaving your chair. My gosh, what a sterile existence that would be. Whether you are a photographer or not, travel enriches you. It makes you feel alive when you see and experience this wonderful planet outside of your own tiny bubble. It opens your mind and heart to other people and fellow creatures. Photographing it allows you to relive these amazing places and share them with others. Travel teaches you to care. It allows you to assess and verify.

As photographers, how often do we recognize the work of fellow photographers? Their images have a feel, a special quality that we immediately pick up on well before knowing who the maker is. This is the essence, or soul, of the person reflected in their work. We see it in paintings. We recognize it in literary works. Some call it style. Whatever the term, it is an embodiment of the maker manifested in what they created that we perceive.

“You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.” ― Ansel Adams

Cogito Ergo Sum, or “I Think, Therefore I am”, is the philosophy of mathematician René Descartes and one that we should all embrace and fiercely protect at all costs.

Photoshop & AI

I’ve recently tried out Adobe’s latest Photoshop which has AI capabilities. It’s still in beta so you can download and install it without affecting your current installation. Below is an image from Iceland taken 6 years ago. There were tons of people around. I never bothered developing this image for a multitude of reasons, one being the people in the shot. Here’s the original, untouched, opened in Photoshop. You can see the dialog box for the AI generator.

I used the Polygonal Lasso Tool to roughly select the area to adjust.

Clicking “Generate fill” brings up a dialog box. I left it empty and tapped “Generate”. It cleanly removed the people and filled in with the background. I purposely left the person in red out at the right edge of the selection so I could compare it to the cleaned-up area. It did a good job of the task. It is much faster and more accurate than if I cloned out the people myself. This feature will elevate many photographs I have sitting in folders unprocessed. Impressive!

In this example, AI falls into #2. It helped to easily remove elements I do not want from the image. It salvaged a moment I captured but considered not worth developing. This is a positive aspect of AI since it assesses the area and applies an algorithm to correct something based on something that already exists in the image. I controlled what it needed to fix and it saved me time. This is the good of AI.

Ultimately, the image is mine, I traveled to Iceland, visited Skógafoss, framed the scene, and exposed it with intent. The memory of the moment seeing this beautiful waterfall is with me as is the photograph my camera captured.

The AI generator also can add elements to an image that do not exist at all. Here, I selected an area and typed in “Add a white unicorn” and added a unicorn horn separately since it didn’t come with one. I then selected the sky and typed in “rainbow sky”. For each, it gave me three choices that I could select from. It helped me get rid of the washed out sky.

Does it make it easier to composite? To a degree, yes. Instead of my selecting specific pieces and altering them how I want them, it drops them in. It is making decisions and assumptions for me. Again, the selection it chose is based on what is in the Adobe database, the application of an algorithm, and not my vision. Can I make changes to the AI-generated elements? Sure, that can be done. From my perspective, it has elements of both the good and bad of AI.

Sky replacement has been available in various post-processing tools. This method is a bit different than the other sky replacement methods. It selects the sky based on your description. Other sky replacement tools allow you to select the kind you want from the skies it has built-in as well as from the images you have photographed. How many times do you select a sky based on how the image ‘feels’ with the potential replacement? That aspect is missing from this method. Perhaps it will change in future releases, but in this current version I am not finding it to be helpful.

I tried generating another variation on the white unicorn theme. I typed “Add a white unicorn with flowers on the neck”.

The following images reflect the AI suggestions.

Not sure where the flowers went on this one?

My AI (not really an oxymoron)

From a creator’s standpoint, I’d like AI to use my images to tap into and not a random database to generate elements from. Yes, it will be a smaller pool of data to tap into, but it will be my responsibility to control the quality and quantity.

Technology exists already that can scan images and can determine what they are of and much more. How about incorporating this technology to read the images in Lightroom or Bridge to build the database AI will use to generate in Photoshop? It would be a private pool of data. It would be based totally on the photographer’s vision and no one else.

Free will anyone?

I haven’t touched upon the ramifications of using AI in photography competition entries. That’s a topic for future post.

What are your thoughts on AI? Let’s hear it in the comments.

Update August 8, 2023 I attended an Adobe Live event recently that demonstrated the AI generator. I questioned Adobe as to any plans to directly use the maker’s images and not the Adobe stock images in the generator. I was very happy (ok thrilled) to hear that Adobe is listening and working on an alternate means of generating AI elements based on one’s own work.

© Silvana Della Camera

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