A Framework for Thinking about Disruption of the Arts by AI

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Image by Thierry Milherou from Pixabay

Enough experts in artificial intelligence saying that AI will “change everything,” suggest that it’s worth pondering what the “everything” means. The short answer is we don’t know. But we do know that technology has had profound impact on how the world works. And we know that the digital revolution beginning in the 1990s changed how we interact in profound and unexpected ways over the past thirty years. It is not possible in today’s world to succeed without technologies that didn’t exist 20 years ago. The digital revolution was technology-driven and culturally transformative.

The AI revolution, many technologists say, promises to be at least as profound, perhaps a new Industrial Revolution. Breakthroughs in drugs and health care, strategies for climate change, new chemicals and materials, extensions of lifespan and our ability to be creative. Massive disruption of jobs, industrial production, and ownership of intellectual property. Exponential change rather than the merely frantic variety. If the digital revolution is any lesson, it will also result in potentially darker threats, this time perhaps even existential ones.

As unpredictable as the digital age has been, there are important lessons to be learned about strategies to deal with emerging tech. Chief among them is: disruptive tech companies will set their own rules in the absence of regulation and/or organized competitors. The music industry was decimated by file sharing (Napster), then saw Apple transform the music business, setting its own rules for how it would work. Newspapers saw their business models collapse as Big Tech grew monopolies in adtech and hollowed out the advertising model. Lesson: in the absence of strategic thinking by those in existing industries, Big Tech will change the rules to suit itself, in the process assuming control, dictating the terms and redistributing the money.

The business world is scrambling to adapt. Big Tech is investing hundreds of billions of dollars, Fortune 500 companies are hiring Chief AI officers and creating new divisions to incorporate the technologies, and almost every day there’s news of business deals shaping and reshaping a new AI sector.

Still, if change is exponential and new paradigms and realities suddenly appear in unpredictable ways, how can you plan for it?

And what would a strategy for the arts sector be for anticipating artificial intelligence, if consensus seems to be it will change everything? Over the past several months I’ve had hundreds of conversations with foundation leaders, arts leaders and technologists, and while there’s certainly interest in AI in the arts, and while many are experimenting with chatbots — writing memos or marketing copy mostly — and while there have been some interesting artistic projects, there’s not a lot of strategic thinking about AI generally in the arts.

But Universal Music Group, the world’s largest music company, has jumped all in. Along with the Recording Industry Association of America, it pulled together 150 commercial music groups to form the Human Artistry Campaign to lobby for the dominance of human artists over AI-created music.

Its seven principles:

  1. Technology has long empowered human expression, and AI will be no different
  2. Human created works will continue to play an essential role in our lives
  3. Use of copyrighted works, and the use of voices and likenesses of professional performers, requires authorization and free-market licensing from all rightsholders
  4. Governments should not create new copyright or other IP exemptions that allow AI developers to exploit creators without permission or compensation
  5. Copyright should only protect the unique value of human intellectual creativity
  6. Trustworthiness and transparency are essential to the success of AI and protection of creators
  7. Creators’ interests must be represented in policymaking

There’s lots to say about this list — particularly its strong emphasis on preserving the copyright system. UMG’s fortunes are built on the copyrights it owns and licenses, and AI is a threat because copyright law never anticipated what AI now makes possible — producing new work based on the essence of an artist without actually copying that artist’s work.

Likewise the movie and entertainment industries are getting focused. No one wants to spend $100 million on a project without controlling the IP. Among the issues — if movie studios use AI to create parts of a movie, but AI-created work can’t be copyrighted, they won’t use AI. Yet in both movies and music, AI tools will inevitably be part of the workflow (as they are already becoming). So what should the new rules be?

There’s a scramble going on right now to create the next generation of copyright laws that will apply in the age of AI, and UMG understandably wants to preserve its interests (whether or not those are the same interests as for artists may be a very different question). Drug companies, device-makers, software companies, and virtually every industry whose business is built on IP are trying to have a voice in creating a framework for the AI era that gives them a viable path forward.

So what are the AI issues in more traditional artforms such as orchestras, opera, dance, theatre and for museums? For now I’d break it down into three categories:

  1. Artistic — AI can remove almost all technical barriers to mastering artistic skills — describing what you want to make, for example, while the AI iterates versions until the artist is satisfied. No, it won’t suddenly make you a virtuoso on the physical violin. But it will allow you to create a performance of the Mendelsohn Concerto merely by describing in detail how you want it to sound, maybe with a new cadenza, perhaps? Loosed of technical impediments, directed by our imaginations, we can expect to create new forms of art. How art is distributed and interreacted with are as much artistic questions as they are production issues. Notions of what audiences are will be redefined — for example, theatre arising from video games that are virtual and interactive and involve the audience in new and unique ways. Or maybe a singer’s AI that allows her to keep “performing” long after her voice is gone, even singing work she the original never performed.
  2. The business — Enormous opportunities. Among them: If artists’ access to audience has been captured by the big platforms and their algorithms, AI and its ability to sift and sort trillions of pieces of data about how the world works in real time could reconnect artists with audiences without having to go through platforms. AI bots and assistants will supercharge the abilities of small staffs to make big impact and interact individually with donors and ticket-buyers. Sam Altman talks about when the first one-person billion-dollar company will happen. If AI tools make every creative generalist an expert across a wider and wider swath of skills, distinctions between the capabilities of small organizations and giant corporations will be irrelevant. Silos within organizations will be meaningless, as will silos between organizations. And new funding models that allow infinite versions of micropayments and transactions will revolutionize how creativity is supported.
  3. Policy — The fact that until only a couple of years ago, metadata for classical music was awkwardly made to conform to pop music thereby making it difficult for classical music listeners to find what they were looking for illustrates the peril of not participating in infrastructure policy from the start. Copyright is being redefined. Do artistic organizations have an interest in how? Absolutely. AI will change the ways business is conducted — transactions managed, tickets sold, blockchains kept. The notion of what an institution is and its role with artists and audiences will be transformed as transactions of every sort become more three-dimensional.

Most arts organizations and artists I’ve talked with don’t think they have the bandwidth or resources to work on this. We tend to conceptualize about the future based on the frameworks of the present. Marshall McLuhan said that new media always imitates the old. Until it doesn’t. And then it becomes necessary to shed the skin of the old and play by new rules. Whether those new rules are constraints or opportunities depends not on new technology or using cool new toys, but what it is you’re trying to accomplish and what you value. How do you cope with exponential change? Be absolutely clear about what you’re trying to do.

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